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Schools in no hurry to revise response to head lice

School districts in Broward and Palm Beach counties are in no hurry to revisit their policies to control the spread of head lice, despite a prominent medical group's report stating the measures go too far.

This summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised school districts across the country to abandon their zero-tolerance "no-nit" policies that bar children from classrooms if they have lice eggs in their hair.

Broward and Palm Beach counties have such a policy, but neither district keeps track of how many times they've enforced it.

Lice are tiny, parasitic insects that feed off human blood and spread mainly by head-to-head contact. Products exist to wash them out of your hair, but their eggs, or nits, are sticky and often need to be spotted and removed by hand with specialized, fine-toothed combs (thus the term nitpick).

Unless the nits are removed from the hair, the problem is likely to return.

In a report from the pediatricians' group, Dr. Barbara Frankowski and her co-authors argue that head lice are more of a nuisance than a health threat, and that while steps should be taken to prevent their spread, it makes no sense to keep kids out of school just because they have eggs in their hair.

"No other country in the world has a no-nit policy," Frankowski said. She argued that no-nit policies do little to slow the spread of head lice. Rather, the policies unnecessarily keep at home children who would otherwise be learning.

But it's not a message that's going over well among local parents and school districts.

"The district is inclined toward leaving the no-nit policy in place until further review," said Marcia Bynoe, health education director for Broward public schools.

Vickie Middlebrooks, spokeswoman for Palm Beach County Schools, said: "We are aware of the new recommendation and will be meeting further with our health partners and school administration to determine" whether a policy change is needed.

The Florida Department of Education spokewoman Cheryl Etters said no-nit policies are local decisions, but she was not aware of any district in the state announcing a change in policy.

Ali Roth, 42, of Boca Raton, said two of her children caught head lice at a Parkland day camp over the summer, and she dreaded calling the parents of her children's friends to tell them about it.

"My kids aren't gross and dirty," she said. "People get lice from someplace. My kids didn't invent it, and I know that. But what I don't know is whether the parents I'm calling realize that."

Roth had her children checked by Louse Calls, a Boca Raton-based nit-removal business run by Amy Graff. Graff opposes relaxing no-nit policies.

"There will be more lice in schools if no-nit policies are abandoned," she said. "You can't just say someone can come to school as long as they just have eggs. At any given moment those eggs could hatch, and then you have live lice to worry about."

But Frankowski, a Vermont pediatrician, thinks the reaction to head lice has more to do with stigma and myth than reality. People are confused about how the problem spreads, and mistakenly believe the presence of lice says something bad about a person's hygiene, she said.

She also said abandoning no-nit policies is not the same as having a cavalier attitude about head lice.

"We want children to be treated," she said. "We don't want them scratching themselves raw and getting skin infections."

It's a matter of recognizing head lice as a nuisance rather than a health threat, she said. Lice do not spread disease.

"The common cold is a much more serious infection," said Frankowski. "No one has ever had to be hospitalized from head lice."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees. The federal agency advises school districts to educate children and parents on how to avoid the spread of lice and echoes the pediatric group's rejection of no-nit policies.

But the agreement is not universal. Deborah Altschuler, president of the National Pediculosis (head lice infestation) Association, based in Massachusetts, said the pediatricians' group is understating how easily lice spread.

No-nit policies, she said, are the best way of ensuring that when head lice are gone, they won't be coming back.

Rafael Olmeda can be reached at rolmeda@SunSentinel.com or 954-572-2083.

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