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Schools forced to keep quiet about nits

By Kathleen Nutt and Eva Langlands
December 10, 2006;  The Sunday Times

LOCAL authorities have been criticised for banning schools from publicising outbreaks of nits for fear of stigmatising pupils.

There have been complaints that head lice have been allowed to spread because schools are forbidden from informing parents of cases.

Only two of Scotland’s 32 local authorities — East Renfrewshire and East Ayrshire — have policies that ensure parents are notified when a school pupil has nits. Both authorities send letters to all parents, a move they say is crucial in preventing repeated outbreaks and minimising blame.

Parents with children at schools in the remaining 30 local authorities are forced to rely on word of mouth to find out if there is an alert.

Scottish executive guidance says only parents of infected children should be told, to prevent those concerned from being bullied. Parents’ groups have dismissed the guidance as “nonsensical,” claiming it merely creates an attractive breeding ground for the parasites.

“To rely on informal communication between parents is quite frankly a nonsense. You have no chance of combating a lice outbreak when nobody knows about it. The only winners are the lice in that game,” said Tina Woolnough, chair of Parents in Partnership. “I suspect the people behind this decision are of an older generation and genuinely believe there is a stigma. But that’s a myth.

“By not informing parents and children, these people are creating stigma. You end up with a whispering campaign. People talk informally behind the scenes, when what we should be doing is being open.”

Under Scottish executive guidance, it is the parents’ responsibility to check their children for head lice.

However it also says that schools have a responsibility to tell parents how to identify and treat infections. Advice should include details about where parents can go for help, and tips on checking hair.

The only way to prevent a repeat infection is to treat everybody affected at the same time, which can be more difficult when parents are unaware of an outbreak.

“It’s right that parents should know that there is an outbreak in a school. Not only does that stop them speculating about the cause or severity, but it also removes the potential conflict which can arise when a particular child or family is ‘blamed’ for the outbreak,” said a spokesman for East Renfrewshire council. “Infestation is no respecter of postcodes or income levels. It’s important that people know the facts and how to deal with lice. We have had outbreaks in all of our primary schools, regardless of whether they’re in a well-off or less-well-off area.”

People in Britain spend £30m annually on treatments for head lice, parasitic creatures that live among the hair and are spread from person to person by contact. Earlier this year scientists discovered that 80% of the bugs are immune to over-the-counter lotions.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish executive said the old scheme caused unnecessary alarm among parents, and was not always productive.

"Most schools are likely to have a few pupils with head lice at any time and an alert letter could potentially be required every day of the school year," she said.