(This column was first published in the February 11, 2002 Buffalo News.)
In preparing this column I tried an experiment. I asked several friends if they or any of their children had ever had head lice. Although each responded no, they all added as I expected, "Why do you ask?" I told them that I was writing a column about head lice and looking for a lead, that I wanted to write something like, "My friend Joe Smith's daughter Amy had head lice and...."
Each time I never got any further. A look of horror came over the countenance of the person interviewed, the pitch of his or her voice rose and I'd hear a variation of: "Surely you wouldn't do that to one of your friends."
Clearly the half dozen people I questioned shared the widespread social attitude that an individual infested with head lice conveys something very bad about that person's family.
In a January 28, 2002 New Yorker piece under the heading "Secret Shame Department", Guy Martin confirms this. He tells how his discussions with the families of children with head lice required his having to maintain "conditions of anonymity befitting participants in the Federal Witness Protection Program."
This association of shame with head lice is, it seems to me, most unfortunate. We don't hesitate to admit having boils or rashes or conjunctivitis -- a.k.a. pink eye -- or being bitten by mosquitoes or black flies. But a louse? Keep it secret.
I suspect that this is because people associate lice with unsanitary or unhealthy conditions.
And this is quite simply wrong.
The true lice connection is with groups of people.
Head lice (sometimes called cooties by children) are tiny wingless insects, their life span about a month. Adults are at most 1/8 inch long. The only louse food is human blood, which it commonly finds behind an infested person's ears and near the hairline at the back of the neck. The resulting small wounds cause intense itching. (As you read this, do you suddenly feel the need to scratch your scalp?)
Lice eggs (called nits) are 1/30 inch long, so small they are often mistaken for dandruff or drops of hair spray. They are cemented to human hairs and hatch in about a week.
There are four important things to understand about head lice: (1) They are specific to humans. They cannot live on your household pets, for example. (2) They cannot live away from a human host for more than about one day. (3) They are widespread and common. According to the National Pediculosis Association, "With the exception of the common cold, head lice affect more school-aged children than all...communicable childhood diseases combined." The Centers for Disease Control estimates 6-12 million people infected annually. And (4) They do not spread disease.