February 24, 2012

And now you know.

Write what you know.  It's the first rule of writing.  Seems sensible enough.  You won't find me writing about brain surgery or auto manufacturing or gardening or the Peace Corps.  

What I do know a little about is motherhood and parenting and very many things that inform such a "vocation."  I have learned a lot about things like disposable diapers, cradle cap,  stuffed animals, crayons, and Legos.  My most recent educational adventure?  Head lice. I know, your head's itching already.  

Hate to say it, but I've learned more than I ever wanted to know about head lice. Six weeks ago we found them on Moo and Slim.  Slim had a few, Moo had a lot.  A LOT.  It was bad.  Needless to say, we sprung into action immediately and declared war.  Three minutes online was enough education to get things started.  Bagging, stripping beds, running to the drugstore for shampoo and spray--the single longest drive in my life.  As my husband started turning our house upside down, I began calling people.  Anyone and everyone we could think of that had been in recent close contact with our children.  And honestly I wasn't so much embarrassed as I was incredulous.  Days before I had watched The Switch (with the head lice scene) and had thought that I felt lucky to have not had to deal with that one.  Yet.  

So we call the schools (Elementary and Intermediate) and inform all the necessary parties there.  They assure us that they will check the other kids in the classroom and we went about several days of cleaning, vacuuming, washing, spraying, shampooing, showering and nitpicking (repeatedly repeatedly).  We sprayed things we could not launder, we bagged things we couldn't spray, we threw away all of our bed pillows and bought new ones (AND taped the plastic bags on them and slept with plastic under our pillowcases for a week afterwards) all in the name of eradication, elimination and prevention.  Poor Moo had more chemicals on her head in the first 2 hours than Dow distributes in a week.  I had treated her twice before the family doctor suggested that the chemicals were neurotoxins and may take time to kill all the live bugs I was continuing to find after the first two treatments.

Thankfully we found none on me, my husband or Little Geel (the eight-month-old), but of course that did not preclude us from treatment--except the baby.  Thankfully my husband maintains a buzz cut for the military, I am constantly scanning my head for gray hairs and I spend 75% of my time with the baby staring at her head, so vigilance on us is easy to maintain.  My son opted for the clippers and we took about three inches off my daughter's hair.  Extreme?  Maybe.  But it was a compromise between continuing to nitpick her longish hair and buzzing her head (which was her first request).  And it's just hair and it'll grow back.  Probably faster than my sanity is going to return.

We were informed that it was school policy to keep the kids home until they were nit-free.  We happily complied and felt it was our duty not to expose anyone else to this nightmare.  The school informed us that they checked all the kids in our children's classrooms and that no other cases were found.  Hhmmmm?  Okay, I guess anything's possible, but my daughter had SO MANY live bugs and HUNDREDS of nits in her hair, that I find it very hard to believe that by Wednesday evening (the night we found out) she hadn't come into close enough contact with any other kid that would not have gotten it.  No one.  Well, good for them, I guess.  

All through this we can't quite figure out where she would have gotten them from.  They certainly did not spontaneously generate in our home.  We "strongly suspect" a case of shared earmuffs (which were covered in them, and have been thrown away--sadly, since they were brand new) but that is absolutely beside the point.  You never really know where they start and they are always "around."  We assumed (wrongly) there may be a letter put out by the school, just as a precaution, so that other parents may be aware and check they're kids at home and help keep down the spread.  

We continued our vigilance at home and our kids were back to school after two days out and a three day weekend spent in our cycle of bed-stripping, laundering, nitpicking and a second round of shampoo treatments for all.  (Recommended 7-9 days after the first, just in case you miss a nit and it hatches.)  We continued to check our kids heads through the following week just in case.  Probably by the following weekend we were satisfied that our kids were safe and things were settling back into normal life--minus the plastic bags on our pillows and the several bags of items we were still going through while getting back to our usual cleaning and laundry routines.  

Now may be a good time to go over a few facts I've learned about our friend pediculus humanus capitis:
  • Having head lice is not a cleanliness issue.
  • Head lice do not carry diseases.
  • Lice do not hop or fly and therefore are spread mainly through head-to-head contact or sharing of infested clothing/hats/scarves/etc.
  • Eggs (nits) DO NOT travel. They remain attached to the hair shaft.  If hair falls off the head with an attached nit that hatches, it must find a human host within 24-48 hours or it will die.
  • Head lice can only live 24-48 hours off a human host, but can live up to 30 days ON a human host and can lay up to 100 eggs in their life cycle.
  • Nits take 7-10 days to hatch, females take 7-10 days to mature enough to lay eggs.
  • Nit removal (both from the head and through laundering clothing and vacuuming areas of the home) is THE KEY to shutting down the cycle.
Having learned all that and having followed through exhaustively on all procedures weeks ago, it was quite a surprise to discover last Tuesday morning that Moo had nits AGAIN.  Yeah, Happy Valentine's Day.  Seriously?  Five weeks later?  Scenes from Silkwood are running through my head.  I'm pretty sure we sat for about an hour and did nothing this second time.  I'm pretty sure both I and my husband were in some state of shock.  Eventually we restart "the machine"--shampooing heads, stripping beds, bagging and tagging, busting out the vacuum, and buying more spray.  

Thankfully we must have caught it early this time.  Moo is the only victim, but there are very few nits and no live adults.  Not-so-thankfully I realize that she just had a sleepover here Friday night and both of my kids had gone to a birthday party Sunday.  Cue the phone calls.  

You may suspect that two cases of head lice inside six weeks would be pretty harrowing--and you'd be right--but what we found even more disturbing is our school district's seeming lack of concern.  As I said before, cases of head lice are always "around."  It's probably damn near impossible to totally eradicate it in any given population so one would assume that AWARENESS might be helpful in keeping the numbers down.  Everyone we spoke with said they that would want to know if a kid in their child's school had head lice.  

If you're not in the bathroom checking your head yet, here are some of the alarming things we discovered after many conversations with different people.  I'll try to recap as best I can.

From different members within the school district:
  • We can't inform parents due to HIPAA laws.  Untrue--see this link. (Thanks, Noel) And really, we're not asking them to name names.
  • Making parents aware was not a good idea because all the parents would panic, and there would be a run on lice shampoo and everyone would shampoo their kids "creating immunity."  Probably not likely and definitely untrue.
  • Putting out a letter is pointless because parents won't read it anyway.  You can't fix everything, so do nothing?  Truth is, some people won't read it, but many will.
  • We do more than other school districts do.  Who apparently have NO "no nit" policy and allow affected kids to be in school regardless of the condition.
  • We are concerned about unnecessary absences.
  • It's not a public health issue so we can't do anything about it. Technically, it's not--because lice don't carry diseases--it's really just a nuisance pest.
From other parents:
  • Our doctor just assumed the school sent out letters. Even doctors think this is sound practice, and that doctor noted that these things need to be controlled in the home to keep down the spread.
  • We heard of a case three months ago.  (Kid on our bus.)  You mean BEFORE my daughter's first case?  Wowzers!  You think AWARENESS might have helped us out? 
  • My daughter (a girl in our neighborhood, who also rides our bus) just got it last week! EXACTLY when Moo picked it up a second time.  Again, AWARENESS, anyone?
  • The friend of the girl above has it too.  That's three cases in the same couple of days.  Four if you include one of my daughter's sleepover guests, who likely got it from Moo.
Look, I understand that the school can't fight this all day, every day, but that's kind of our point.  Make parents aware.  Get them involved in keeping this at bay.  And I also understand that people are embarrassed, but that's just one more reason to get some facts out there.  Educate people.  (We heard so much misinformation from people we spoke with.)  So ALL we want now is some awareness.  When cold and flu season comes around we get reminders from the school to "wash hands frequently" and "sneeze into our elbows."  Why can't we just make people aware:  here are some facts; here are some suggestions; here's where you can get more information.  

My husband called the superintendent's office several times and is trying to whip the neighbors into a frenzy but I don't know how many of them will follow through.  I have considered starting a petition but I just can't gauge how much interest is out there.  Most parents don't care until they have to deal with it.  A lot of our neighbors seemed angry since our kids are all in such close quarters on the bus, but I don't know how many of them will keep up the concern unless and until they have to fight it in their own homes.  

Hell, I'm exhausted (and my exhaustion can't even touch my husband's--who's done most of the heavy lifting when it comes to cleaning the house.  I owe you, big time, babe) and just cautiously glad it seems to be over now.  Again.  But I could almost cry at the thought of it coming back.  Seriously, if we have deal with this one more time we may just torch the house--it would be easier.  (That's a joke, Liberty Mutual.)

Update:  I spoke with one of the school administrators yesterday and she seemed very agreeable about an "awareness" letter or flyer.  We'll see......I'll keep you posted.
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