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You Light Up My Lice
Shampoo illuminates nits, but incites criticism

By Jeff Kelliher
HealthSCOUT Reporter

WEDNESDAY, June 21 (HealthSCOUT) -- If you've ever had a child with head lice you know that defeating the little buggers is enough to want to make you pull your own hair out.

That's what a Yale professor and pediatrician discovered during a recent outbreak of lice in New Haven day care centers. In fact, the experience was enough to motivate Dr. Sydney Spiesel to develop a shampoo that makes removal of the tiny lice eggs, commonly called nits, less of a chore.

"I was sort of the court of last resort for this one day care. I spent at least one hour with a girl who had thick, honey-blond hair and I found several nits even though the family had already gone through her hair," says Spiesel. "I finished the job, but it became clear that it's a really terrible process."

Head lice, or pediculus humanus capitis, are tiny, parasitic insects that live and feed on the scalp. While they do not pose a serious health problem they can cause itching, skin irritation and embarrassment. They also prompt day care centers and some schools to send children home until the problem's cleared up, creating problems for working parents.

The purpose of the shampoo is not to kill the lice. Instead, it makes the nits, which are usually the size of a grain of sand, visible under ultraviolet light. The key ingredient in the shampoo, blankophor, is a whitening agent that binds to a material in the nits' outer shell called chitin.

"Up until about 10 years ago we had potent insecticides that killed both the lice and the eggs," explains Spiesel. "But you can no longer count on them anymore because the nits, especially, have developed resistance."

Spiesel says removal is now the strategy of choice for beating the nits.

"Blankophor has no toxicity that we know of for humans," says Spiesel. "When manufacturers release chemicals for commercial use they have to issue sheets called material data safety reports (MDSRs). The MDSR for this agent says it's really nontoxic."

"I don't think the stuff would even do harm to the lice," adds Spiesel.

Organization's president dubious

Deborah Altschuler, president of the National Pediculosis Association, a group formed to combat the problem, says shampooing kids' hair with a whitening agent is not the way to go. "When we looked at the chemical he plans to use in the shampoo, we weren't thrilled," says Altschuler. "We're not going to be excited until we get some better science."

Altschuler says she wants to see the shampoo tested for safety on skin that's broken or infected. She also wants to make sure it won't interact with any of the host of medications kids take today, including antibiotics.

"Certain medications increase sensitivity to ultraviolet light," says Altschuler. "UV light in certain scenarios can cause serious harm to the skin."

Altschuler also points out that blankophor is used as a whitening agent in paper production and as part of a multi-step process to kill gypsy moths and other outdoor pests.

"This is parents putting chemicals on their children they wouldn't put on their dog," warns Altschuler.

What To Do

Children who complain about an itchy head or who have redness of the scalp should probably be inspected for lice. The lice themselves are tiny crab-like critters about the size of a crumb. The nits are even smaller. They often appear as dandruff, but they won't brush away because they're stuck to the hair shafts.

Spiesel is currently talking to several manufacturers who plan to sell his shampoo over the counter, complete with ultraviolet light bulbs. Spiesel has no idea when the shampoo will be available, but he already has a name for his product, courtesy of a youngster in his practice: HeadLights for Head Lice.

Altschuler says education and early detection are safer and more effective than chemicals. Upon infestation, she recommends physically, manually removing the nits with an effective combing tool. "It's not possible to prevent lice, but it is possible to prevent unnecessary exposure to chemicals."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that between six and 12 million people worldwide get head lice each year.

To learn more about the problem and ways to combat it, go to the National Pediculosis Association. You can also visit the CDC for parasitic disease information.

SOURCES: Interviews with Sydney Z. Spiesel, M.D., assistant clinical professor of pediatrics, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn., and Deborah Altschuler, president, National Pediculosis Association, Newton, Mass.; Yale University news release

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