Banish the third plague: one mother’s plea

"EVEN AMONG those parents who do care enough there is a great deal of ignorance about preventing lice."

Head lice (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Head lice
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Making aliya requires adjusting to a new culture, to the curious blend of new and old, cutting-edge and antiquated, that characterizes this beautiful country.
My husband and I moved from New York to Jerusalem last summer with our three children. We feel very blessed to be here, thankful to have realized our dream of raising our family in the Holy Land. There are challenges, to be sure. The little, niggling frustrations often rankle the most, especially those that could be prevented if people would simply do the right thing.
Case in point: When the school year began, I was quickly initiated into the problem of kinim (head lice) and their multitudinous eggs, or nits. It is a perpetual epidemic in this country with no discernible response from public health authorities. Confronting the buggers is a rite of passage, veteran olim told me, recalling the panic and disgust they, too, experienced during their first encounters with this ancient plague.
My son is in elementary school, and my younger children, both girls, are in kindergarten, so I was well-positioned to face the scourge of lice sooner rather than later. Fortunately, my kids had never had lice before, but it was already on my radar screen. In New York, all the yeshivot, both girls’ and boys’, have regular lice checks. A professional head-checker comes in several times a year (quarterly for boys, as often as monthly for girls) to check every child’s head. As president of the Parent-Teacher Association at my son’s school, I arranged these visits, for which we collected a small fee at the beginning of the year to cover the cost.
If, upon checking, a pupil is found with lice or nits, the parents are informed that their child may not return to school until his or her head has been completely cleaned out. Although we had no formal system in place to prevent a child from coming back to school prematurely, most parents could be counted upon to take care of the situation, either on their own or by calling a professional (and there are many in the religious community – it’s a darn good business). Why? Because in the US it is not culturally acceptable to walk around with creatures in various stages of their life cycle incubating – or worse, crawling – on your head.
It’s gross, plain and simple. And it’s understood that left unchecked, the problem will intensify and spread and will not, no matter how deep in the sand you bury your head, go away on its own.
Here, as I have learned to great chagrin, there is no such widespread understanding. Moreover, there is something even worse: apathy. What allows the plague of head lice to beleaguer this country is persistent neglect on the part of too many parents. Like the mother who threw up her hands and sighed, “There’s nothing you can do.” Excuse me? There is something you can do! Comb out your daughter’s hair! If you can’t or don’t want to do it yourself, hire someone to do it for you. It’s unpleasant, but it’s not rocket science.
Even among those parents who do care enough, there is a great deal of ignorance about preventing lice.
The proof is in the number of little girls who arrive at school with long, unruly hair flowing every which way, with nary a ponytail holder or barrette in sight.
No matter how beautiful a girl’s hair – even if she could star in a shampoo commercial or be a shoo-in for Rapunzel – when she goes to school it should be braided, pony-tailed, or otherwise controlled in some fashion.
Another widely accepted myth is that anti-lice products confer immunity. At the beginning of the school year, a mother in my older daughter’s preschool told me about a spray she uses on her daughter to prevent lice. I was already extremely concerned about the epidemic here. So I immediately ran to SuperPharm and purchased the spray. I used it diligently on my kids’ hair for several weeks. Until the day I noticed that my daughter had a small colony of nits in her hair.
Rosemary, tea tree, eucalyptus – the professional head-checker/cleaner I found (who is now one of the most important people in my life!) told me she has often done comb-outs on kids on whom she can still smell the anti-lice product the parent was using. It’s a matter of physics rather than chemistry: When heads touch – which happens a hundred times a day among school-age kids – the lice get a free, easy ride.
Myths also abound when it comes to lice removal.
While buzzing a kid’s hair can help him avoid picking up a bug, it will not eliminate an existing case of nits, which cling close to the scalp. Lice-killing products can contain potentially dangerous ingredients, and in any case they don’t get the bugs off. Fingers cannot replace a lice comb. Arriving at preschool one morning recently, I cringed as I watched a mother randomly pulling nits out of her daughter’s untamed hair.
Unfortunately, the ignorance extends to teachers as well who, while cognizant of the problem, unwittingly contribute to it by facilitating the sharing of headgear. Around Purim, my little girl’s preschool had an assortment of costumes for the kids to try on, including crowns, tiaras, and other headwear. Before Passover, each child in my older daughter’s preschool was dressed as an Egyptian to reenact the Exodus, with the same toile passing from head to head as each child’s photo was snapped. Oy! These are the same well-meaning teachers who post notices whenever they become aware of a case of lice asking all parents to check their kids.
Clearly, parents and teachers cannot root out the problem on their own. What is needed is a rational, effective public policy to control the proliferation of this unseemly problem. That means mandating regular head checks in schools. Children found to have lice or nits must have their heads cleaned out before returning to school. (If they are combed out that night, they need not miss any school.) Would parents who are now completely negligent about lice control behave differently under a different system? I would hope that if public health officials undertake a campaign to clean out the heads of Israel’s children, then allowing the condition to fester would become socially unacceptable, even to those parents.
Additionally, the prospect of having to keep their child home should compel prompt remediation. Finally, teachers should be permitted and encouraged to inform parents when they notice an unresolved case, and after a certain period of neglect, to report the matter to public health officials.
The notion that having in-school checks will cause embarrassment to kids with lice ignores the much bigger shame those children will experience as the problem worsens and they are eventually shunned by their peers. If the program is carried out with sensitivity and discretion, no child need be singled out in front of the class.
I hope that what I am proposing is not dismissed as a pipe dream. Israel faces problems that are exceedingly difficult, even impossible, to solve. Head lice need not be one of them.
The writer made aliya from New York in 2015 with her husband and three children. She is a freelance writer and editor who qualified as an attorney in the US and has previously worked as a court attorney and magazine editor.