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Kill 'em all.

Byline: By duncan Higgitt Western Mail

All parents will know that head lice are a far bigger problem than they used to be. Fed up to the back teeth with the little beasts, features editor Duncan Higgitt, a father-of-four, set out to wipe them from the face of the earth

BEING prejudiced against a particular species seems so wrong these days. After all, you are discriminating against it on the basis of what it is, not who they are. Doesn't seem very PC.

But, after four years of having - often on a weekly basis - to fight a losing battle against a loathsome parasite, I've decided enough is enough. Only a global solution will do. I'm going to set out to discover if I can to eradicate an entire life form.

First, the morality argument. This is pretty straightforward. The head louse, or Pediculus humanus capitis to give it its full name, is a parasite. That means its task in life is to take its nourishment from a host - humans, in this case.

Such an arrangement is done without the consent of the host, and of no benefit to him or her. In fact, the head louse is involved in a balancing act, ensuring its host is kept alive so it can continue to indulge in its selfish ways.

Unlike bees and worms, they add nothing to the world. With them, it's just take, take, take.

There is one area of human research which benefits from their continued existence: archaeogenetics. It refers to the application of molecular genetics to the study of the human past.

This involves analysing DNA from archaeological remains and modern human populations to study the history of that population.

Nits have proved useful because they are one of the few ancestral disease infestations in humans, and can be used to track ancient migration.

Scientists say such research has shown that some varieties of human lice went through a population bottleneck around 100,000 years ago, which supports the single origin hypothesis - that we all came from Africa - and that lice lineages diverged 1.18 million years ago before re-uniting around 100,000 years ago, thus supporting the multi-regional hypothesis - that in contrast to single origin thinking, homo sapiens only came to the fore once we were scattered across the world.

At such a cursory glance, this doesn't seemed to have resolved anything at all and, taking a value judgment, spending night after night carefully and frustratingly combing my children's hair is more important than deciding where the basin of humanity is.

Having resolved the moral arguments, the next question must be: Am I legally entitled to wipe out a species.

After much poring over United Nations international law - well, longer than the White House spent examining whether it was allowed to invade Iraq I'll wager - I found plenty of laws about protecting bats in Europe, great apes in Africa, coral off the coast of Australia and mountain animals in the Hindu Kush. None about lice.

Technically, they might fall under laws about protecting biodiversity, and migratory species, but my defence will rest upon the fact that nits are just one life form and that I've left plenty of others alone, and I take migratory to mean international, not from a school friend's hair into my children's.

I thought I'd better take a second opinion, so I put a call into Leo Abse and Cohen, one of Wales' largest legal practices.

The inquiry prompted much discussion, said a spokeswoman. 'But we don't think there's any legal bearing here because they are not a protected species,' she added.

'After all, you can kill them, so I guess genocide is allowed. I guess it's more of a question for ethics.'

Dismissing out of hand this attempt to appeal to my absent conscience, I looked to strengthen my argument further by gathering evidence as to whether nit proliferation has worsened in recent years.

'I think it's difficult to quantify whether there has been an increase in head lice in recent years,' said Karen Healey, head of children's services with Bro Morgannwg NHS Trust, which covers the Bridgend, Neath and Port Talbot areas. She has a team of as many as 13 school nurses - frontline troops in the war against nits - under her guidance.

'I have three children and we get frequent flyers coming home from school saying there has been an infestation. But as I haven't seen any research on it in our area, I couldn't tell you if there are more lice, or that we just know more about them.'

However, the problem has galvanised Bro Morgannwg into action. The trust is bringing out a booklet, complete with cartoons, aimed at educating children and parents about nits.

Karen said, 'If people understand what head lice are, I think people will begin to deal with it on a larger scale.'

All of this sounds a way from the global solution I'm after, but Karen makes the point, 'I've never seen anything that suggests we may never have head lice.

'There needs to be more information to families and we want to manage it locally. If we tighten up procedures, we can beat it at a local level.'

She holds out the prospect of health trusts everywhere linking up and making a concerted effort to defeat this tiny foe. However, there is one sizeable cloud on the horizon: funding.

It means her team, which in real terms means eight full-time school nurses, have as many as 13 schools each to look after.

'The school nurse actually deals with all kinds of health and well-being issues among pupils, but years ago, they had a primary task and that was why they were known as nit nurses.

'Years ago, when there was a nurse in every school, pupils would go to them and lice would be dealt with straight away. I can't say that is why it is more widespread now, but I can tell you that we don't have as many nurses in position and we do have this problem.'

Karen has been lobbying the Assembly for more nurses.

'Research says a nurse should have no more than five schools to look after. They could be based at the comprehensive and look after its feeder schools as well. At the moment, we don't have that luxury.'

Her arguments about focusing on combating lice in schools find agreement with Peter Brophy, a Reader in Parasitology at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

He said, 'There should be 'nit days' at schools, where everyone gets together and removes the social stigma surrounding lice. There's no evidence that, unlike body lice, they carry disease. They are not a major threat, yet we are obsessed with them.

'I think it's probably right that there were less problems when there were nurses in schools.'

Dr Brophy has done research into how lice attach eggs to hair shafts - which may sound like a side issue. However, it could have big implications - it may provide means to bring about their extinction.

'They use a fast-drying cement that they secrete as a liquid but which contracts really tightly around the hair shaft. It's not a glue, as previously thought,' said Dr Brophy.

'It's a very simple structure. If you can interrupt that structure, you can interrupt the female, and you can disrupt the life cycle.'

Put simply, the eggs would fall out of our hair and the offspring would die.

So how could scientists make sure the cement doesn't work? Could we introduce a virus, as with myxomatosis with rabbits?

Dr Brophy said, 'Yes, and there could already be a drug out there. It could be a drug that is being used for something else.

'It may also be that we can find a solution through proteomics, through examining the proteins in lice. It's been done before, with tapeworm, for example.'

But he warns that we shouldn't underestimate the lengths the louse will go to to sustain its selfish existence.

'Head lice lay eggs close to the scalp where it's warm. The eggs that you see are white, and they're empty. They're what were referred to as 'pearls of wisdom' by the Victorians.

'The lice work their way to the surface and while we're messing about, trying to get them out, the eggs are safe. They're quite good at camouflage. It's quite clever.'

Then, when the egg is ready to hatch, the lid flies off and the louse is launched into the hair. Female lice, like many insects, need not join with males to procreate, and lice require just a minute's contact to move on to someone new, although they cannot fly or leap.

There are three kinds of lice that infect humans: head, body and pubic lice. Within head lice, the University of Utah and the University of Florida found two years ago, there are two identical looking yet genetically different, types.

But while scientists there think the two types diverged some 1.18 million years ago, other experts think they may have gone their separate ways only 300,000 years ago. So history is against us - not that humans have sat idle in the face of this menace for so long.

Our first line of defence is hair oil, which impedes the louse's ability to cling to hair shafts and lay eggs. Labelling someone as 'dirty' because they have nits is actually inaccurate because the cleaner your hair is, the more vulnerable you are to human head lice. Similarly, ponytails and tight braids can reduce likelihood of head lice infestation, among those with long hair.

Human head lice can be killed by chemical lice shampoo, but the hair must be combed with a fine-toothed comb after treatment to remove the nits. In the Western world, resistance to commercially available anti-lice shampoos is becoming common - particularly in the UK.

Shampoos based on essential oils can also be efficient if used properly. They can interfere with the reproductive cycle of the lice, but they do not kill them.

Dr Brophy is doubtful whether eradication lies down this route.

'I can see the potential, but the problem is that the current treatments are distrusted by the public. They don't like the fact that there are organo-phosphates, and anyway, like most parasites, they are extremely successful at becoming resistant to treatments. People mistrust using chemicals.

'More and more people are using essential oils, but we don't know how toxic they are, and the treatment is effective for a very short time. If there was a vaccine that could be introduced to the blood stream, that might work.'

In the Higgitt house, we have perfected a method that requires no lice treatment. The children's hair is washed and then conditioner is left in for a few minutes while a lice comb is used.

Dr Brophy, a father himself, approves of this method ... 'Lice don't have the grip in conditioner. But you do need the patience, and it can be very frustrating, especially when one of your children gets re-infected straight away.'

That's right, it is frustrating. And my plan was to find a way to wipe them off the face of the earth.

We have the means - Dr Brophy's idea for destroying the nit's cement. What we need now is political will, a Bill in Parliament that would release the funding needed to complete this most important project.

Lembit Opik, the Welsh Lib Dem leader and Montgomeryshire MP, has a reputation for sticking his neck out for causes he believes in. I explain my plan to him.

'In principle, I could support that,' he said. 'I would be very keen to help, because I know it can be a big problem for children.

'I don't like myxomatosis because of what it's done, but then again lice haven't developed the same social network as rabbits.

'I'd like to see the research, to make sure that mucking around with proteins wouldn't mean mucking about with children's health, but I could support the idea.'

Do you think Duncan's plan would work, and would you support it? Email your comments to duncan.higgitt@wme.co.uk
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 25, 2006
Words:2017
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