New lice advice has some scratching their heads

Head lice — the tiny critters that cause itchy scalps among school kids and strike fear in the hearts of parents — are relatively harmless and should not prevent students from attending school, a national pediatric advisory group now says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that "no healthy child should be excluded or miss school because of head lice."

The group goes further to recommend that schools drop policies that prohibit students from coming to class until they are free of lice and lice eggs, called nits.

"It's a social nuisance more than a health risk and you don't want kids to miss school if they don't have to," said Dr. Mark Netherda, Sonoma County's deputy health officer. "Although people are concerned that lice spread disease and are dirty, they are really more of a social nuisance than a health nuisance."

While some doctors say the risk of spreading the bugs in a classroom setting are slight because lice can't fly or jump, others still urge caution, citing a nit's 6-9 day gestation period and the critters' ability to live away from a human host for about 48 hours.

"Lice is highly contagious," said Kaiser pediatrician Sharon Henderson. "Reinfestation is extremely common. Even if you have killed 99 percent of the lice, that one percent you leave can be a major reinfestation."

Even after treating an infected child, parents and school administrators should be encouraged to conduct frequent monitoring to make sure a reinfestation has not occurred.

"It's all controversial because if you do initiate treatment, it's not just a one time treatment, you have to do constant monitoring," Henderson said.

The California Department of Public Health recommends a no-lice policy but now tells schools to forgo the more stringent no-nit stance. No lice means a kid who has shampooed with a lice-killing treatment should be allowed to return to school the next day.

That is the rule in the Roseland School District.

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