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Head Lice Fear the Dance Floor

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2000
Daniel S. Burgess

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- To all you lice boning up on your disco moves: Don't count on shaking your booty long. That black light coming your way is not for your dancing enjoyment, but for helping parents find and rub you out. Coupled with a shampoo developed by Dr. Sydney Z. Spiesel, an assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Yale University's School of Medicine, the black light may become an essential tool in the control of the head louse, Pediculus capitis. A fluorescent dye in the shampoo bonds to chitin in the outer shell of lice eggs, or nits. Illuminated with UV light, the dyed nits glow brightly, making it easy to identify and remove them from a child's hair with a fine-tooth comb, and avoiding the use of pesticides to which strains of the lice have become resistant.

Spiesel said it is difficult to estimate how many US children are infested with lice annually, but it may be as high as 14 million. "Head lice carry no diseases, so public health epidemiologists are not highly motivated to study the question," he said. Lice also carry connotations of poverty or poor hygiene, so sufferers may conceal infestations. This prejudice is outdated. "The lice have become much more equal-opportunity parasites," Spiesel said. With the passing of crowded, unsanitary tenements for the underclass, Pediculus has become positively upwardly mobile. "The children of the wealthy nap together in nursery schools or day-care centers," he explained, and the lice have jumped on the opportunity.

Columnist Calvin Trillin suggested in Time magazine's July 17 issue that Spiesel be awarded for his accomplishment. "I think I'd just as soon receive a Trillin Prize as a Nobel," said Spiesel, "especially if the heirs of Trillin's other nominee, the late Lisa Mosca, were also invited to receive a prize for her baked oyster recipe -- and especially if they were asked to bring a working model of her invention."


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