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SPECIAL REPORT: Stopping the cycle of head lice

SUN PRAIRIE (WKOW) — Many parents worry that their children will get head lice.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, that happens for six to 12 million children a year.

Stephanie Speers kids are part of that statistic.

“I went to braid [my daughter’s] hair, and my stomach just dropped,” Speers said.  She saw lice and their eggs, known as nits.  “I started checking [my sons’] hair, and I was like, okay so it’s apparently a family affair.”

Speers’ daughter had lice once before when she was younger.  She said over-the-counter treatments took weeks to get rid of the bugs and eggs.  Patty Ziegler had a similar experience with her daughter.  That’s when she opened The Bright Side, an urgent care center for lice removal, in Sun Prairie.

“[Lice] are very contagious and will spread quickly,” said Ziegler.

More and more now, professional grade treatments like Ziegler’s are needed to get rid of lice.

“Most lice are super lice,” explained Karen Sokoloff, owner of the nationwide company LiceDoctors.  “They are resistant to the chemicals.”

Sokoloff added, many over-the-counter treatments don’t get the nits, and home remedies are ineffective.  “What will happen is they’ll comb out what’s visible, and they’ll leave in the tiny [nits].  They’ll just miss it.”

Many school districts have changed their policies within the last five years after recommendations from the AAP and CDC.  The Madison Metropolitan School District is one of those.

“We’re really trying to make more of a caring policy and a less exclusionary policy,” said Sally Zirbel-Donisch, the health services coordinator at MMSD.

Zirbel-Donisch said students at MMSD are no longer routinely mass screened for lice because research showed that wasn’t stopping the spread.  Also, students do not have to go home immediately if head lice are found.  At their parents’ digression they can stay through the rest of the school day because typically children will have had lice for weeks prior to the discovery.  They are sent home with instructions on how to remove lice and checked the next day.

However, a note is not sent home to all parents when a child has lice in the class, grade or school.  “A lot of times those children are stigmatized and isolated, and children in the class know who those students are, and so we really want to protect a child’s privacy,” said Zirbel-Donisch.

Speers’ kids go to school in Janesville.  The district reports a nit reduction policy, meaning as long as no live bugs are found on a student, they can stay in class even if they have nits.  The full Janesville district policy is available at the end of this article.

Speers said, she would appreciate a note going home to parents if someone else in her children’s grade had lice.  “I think it’s really frustrating. I don’t view contracting lice as anything different than the flu bug or a cold or something like that,” she said.  “I think that they should let parents know, so that they can be on the lookout, catch it early, not let the other kids just pass it… It spreads as fast as a virus.”

While the stigma associated with lice prevents some districts from doing this, many health professionals say the stigma is not true.

“I hate the stigma. It’s so backwards,” said Ziegler.  “It’s those kids with the clean hair and the most friends [who get lice].”

Health professionals say the reason for this is because lice are usually spread in a social hair-to-hair contact situation, and the bugs typically only can attach to clean hair.

“People think that head lice is a sign of poor hygiene, but it’s the opposite,” said Sokoloff.

No matter your school or district policies, health professionals suggest stopping the spread of lice by taking matters into your own hands and preventing future cases.

“That openness, that willingness to say, hey we had a case of lice in our family. Texting, emailing, calling friends and saying, maybe take a look at your child and make sure,” said Ziegler.

“The only way to stop the cycle is for everybody who hangs out together checked and treated,” Sokoloff said.

That’s something Speers said she was quick to take care of, notifying her son’s daycare and parents of her other children’s friends.  After she and her three kids were treated at The Bright Side, they went home lice free.


Janesville School District Head Lice Policy

Live lice – These are live lice that have hatched from the eggs and can be seen in a person’s
hair. They are capable of laying eggs and continuing the life cycle of lice.

Nits – These are the eggs that are found on hair shafts, can be hatched or unhatched. They are
cemented on the hair shaft and are hard to remove. Nits close to the scalp have not hatched. Nits
further away from the scalp (more than 1 inch) have already hatched.

Classroom – This is the specific room that a student with live lice or untreated nits were identified.

Grade level – This is the grade level (i.e. all third grade classrooms) where cases of live lice or
untreated nits were identified.

Unit – This is the two grade levels that share time together at recess/lunch (i.e. 4th and 5th grade, or 2nd
and 3rd grade).

Caroline Bach

Anchor, Wake Up Wisconsin Weekend

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