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Many ‘super lice outbreak’ reports get the science wrong (and it’s in Utah)

By Leia Larsen, Standard-Examiner Staff - | Mar 4, 2016
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Lice populations in the states in pink have developed a high level of resistance to some of the most common treatments, according to a study of 109 samples in 30 states.

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Close-up of young woman's hair being combed

It should come as no surprise that reporters (and Americans in general) sometimes need a better understanding of science.

Look no further than the great “Super Lice” panic of 2016.

“‘Super lice’ outbreak hits 25 states,” cries a headline from Fox News last week, which picked up the story from a KDSK story that leads, “so-called super lice have taken over half the country.”

Accompanying the hundreds of super lice stories that keep popping up is a map (shown below) highlighting infected states where the bug is “taking over.”

Fortunately Utah’s in the green, right? Well, it’s both not quite as bad — and also much worse — than the media seem to be reporting.

A 2015 study found lice populations in the states colored pink have developed a high level of resistance to some of the most common treatments — but things aren’t always what they appear. Image: Kyong Yoon, Ph.D.

First of all…

The super lice didn’t just recently “hit” the nation. The map in question comes from a press release about a study conducted by Biologist Kyong Yoon, an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville —  published back in August.

And Yoon actually first published a study on this issue a year ago this month

“Super lice” are just the same harmless but irritating bugs that have plagued human scalps for millions of years. What makes them “super” is their resistance to pyrethroids — the insecticides used in common treatments sold at drugstores.

The insects have developed genes over time that better resist pyrethroids for reasons you might expect — treatments would wipe out nearly all the lice, but not all. In a love story fit for the ages, a surviving louse crept along and mated with another louse, spreading its RID-resistant gene. 

In fact, scientists have studied these types of defiant lice since at least the 1990s. The press release containing the map even says “the momentum toward widespread pyrethroid-resistant lice has been building for years.”

Now, the bad news:

Many reporters failed to glance through Yoon’s study or completely read the release that came with it and published the map with misleading statements.

Yoon’s study only examined 109 lice populations in 30 states (those details are found in the third and ninth paragraph of the press release, respectively), making it quite a stretch to draw conclusions about the entire country.

To get a handle on Utah’s situation, the Standard-Examiner went to the root of the research — Dr. Yoon himself. Yoon has since done an expanded study collecting lice samples from 132 sites in 48 states. The samples understandably exclude remote Alaska and, curiously, also exclude West Virginia. But they do include two samples from Southern Utah, in Blanding and Monument Valley. 

The results, unfortunately, show lice with pyrethroid-resistant genes have firmly taken hold of heads throughout the nation. 

“We found out that the frequency was 98.3 percent,” Yoon said. “I think it’s pretty much clear that resistance … it’s everywhere in the United States.”

The bugs may have gone global, too, considering Yoon’s study included a sample from Hawaii. 

The updated study was just accepted by the Journal of Medical Entomology and should be published in the next month or so, Yoon said. 

While a pain, super-lice can be treated through traditional nit-picking or through stronger treatments. The Mayo Clinic just published a video showing the best ways to get rid of the persistent pests.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiaoutside or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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