Mutant Super Lice May Be Coming to a School Near You

In 25 states, lice are becoming genetically resistant to traditional forms of treatment.

<a href="http://www.istockphoto.com/photo/toddler-scratching-head-38635668?st=4f57e0d">portsmouthnhcharley</a>/iStock


With the summer closing out its final weeks, kids around the United States are packing up their backpacks, collecting their colored pencils, and heading back to school. But amid all the excitement, parents have a new worry: super lice.

Lice infestations typically affect up to 12 million kids between the ages of 3 and 11 each year. But in 25 states, the blood-eating parasites that make their homes in hair and are commonly spread in classrooms have become resistant to most over-the-counter treatments, according to a new study.

Lice populations in the states in pink have developed a high level of resistance to some of the most common treatments. Kyong Yoon, Ph.D.

“We are the first group to collect lice samples from a large number of populations across the U.S.,” researcher Kyong Yoon said in a statement published with the study, which was presented at the American Chemical Society. “What we found was that 104 out of the 109 lice populations we tested had high levels of gene mutations, which have been linked to resistance to pyrethroids.”

Pyrethroids, insecticides that can be bought in FDA-approved shampoo form from a pharmacy, have long been go-to treatments for lice infestations.

Overuse, Yoon found, could be to blame for the loss in the insecticides’ effectiveness—and the problem has been growing for years. While the latest study used the largest survey of the data on lice in the United States, the super lice problem was identified back in the 1990s.

Still, Yoon’s study—and the alarm that resulted from it—has been scrutinized by other scientists who say it’s not yet time to panic. While Yoon concluded that many of the lice had genetic mutations making them less sensitive to insecticides, traditional treatment methods may still be enough to kill them. As Medpage Today reports:

“The relationship between clinical and genetic resistance is still debated,” said Rémy Durand, PharmD, PhD, HDR, a researcher in the Department of Parasitology and Mycology at Hôpital Avicenne in Paris, France. While kdr mutations are well known for their effects on insecticide resistance in many insect species, Durand pointed out that some limited studies have actually reported that the presence of these “mutant alleles” in lice did not correlate with clinical failure.

Should we fear the rise of mutant lice? The good news, health officials report, is the critters aren’t dangerous and don’t spread disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends over-the-counter treatments, followed by prescription-strength remedies if that doesn’t knock them out.

Still, Yoon’s findings serve as an important warning that extends beyond louse removal:

“If you use a chemical over and over, these little creatures will eventually develop resistance,” Yoon says. “So we have to think before we use a treatment.”

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

Our goal is to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We're aiming to create a reporting position dedicated to uncovering corruption, build a team, and let them investigate for a year—publishing our stories in a concerted window: a special issue of our magazine, video and podcast series, and a dedicated online portal so they don't get lost in the daily deluge of headlines and breaking news.

We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate