Itch no more?

Scratch that: Lockdown was calamity for head lice, experts say

With Israeli kids barred from play dates, critters got combed to oblivion, says fount of Israel’s nit knowledge; impact could be long-lasting — though not permanent

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Head lice, illustrative (YouTube screenshot)
Head lice, illustrative (YouTube screenshot)

Parents who braved the coronavirus lockdown with a houseful of kids may be encouraged to learn of a silver lining to their suffering: up to 18 months of low head lice levels.

A top expert on all things creepy and crawly, including bed bugs, midges, fleas, ticks and lice that live on human heads and bodies, told The Times of Israel that the lockdown was a nightmare for Israel’s normally thriving head lice population. What’s more, he thinks social distancing regulations deployed in schools will seriously impair their attempts to jump between kids and revive their numbers.

Kosta Y. Mumcuoglu, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Parasitology Unit, said that the lice population is “lower for sure” following the lockdown, “and possibly much lower.” However well lice manage to move from head to head and breed, their numbers will be below their normal level during the peak season in the fall and winter, he said.

Parasite expert Shulamit Michaeli agrees. “The number of children with lice will be reduced for a few months,” she said. “It will be a significant reduction — but not an elimination.”

Shulamit Michaeli, microbiologist and vice president for research at Bar Ilan University (Courtesy)

“The lice need contact between kids to spread, and they’ve just not been getting it,” said Michaeli, microbiologist and vice president for research at Bar Ilan University.

Head lice are a major problem for Israeli kids, and have even been a topic for the renowned novelist Meir Shalev, who in 1990 wrote a comical children’s book called “Nehama the Louse.”

Mumcuoglu explained that the lockdown was long enough for any child who was infected with lice to start scratching. As this can take up to a month, the lockdown represented an unprecedented instance when kids from different families didn’t meet each other, and all children with lice would have shown signs of infection. This will have prompted many parents to treat them, said Mumcuoglu, a man so committed to lice research that he has been known to infect his hair to observe the behavior of the little critters.

He predicted that if social distancing protocols stay in place and schools make some efforts to keep children further than normal from each other, lice populations could remain low for two fall-winter seasons. Normally, one in 10 Israeli kids has live lice at any time, but this figure is expected to drop, Mumcuoglu stated.

He said: “If children are keeping more distance from each other than normal they won’t infect each other as they do in normal times, and the infestation rate could stay down until next winter.”

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