Resistant “superlice” cause outbreak of poor journalism

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

You’ve seen it on Facebook, Drudge, Yahoo News, and just about everywhere else—headlines like “Superlice outbreak hits 25 states” or “Super lice spreading across the US.” Makes you itchy just thinking about it, right?

But “the news” has gotten it wrong. They’re relying on an advertising piece written on behalf of a company that – guess what? – treats lice. Web sites are just regurgitating the same “story”, as if it’s news.

So what’s the story, really? The original spate of headlines began in August, 2015, right about the time when school started. The root of those stories, then, was a press release from the American Chemical Society, “Lice in at least 25 states show resistance to common treatments.” Researchers had collected lice from all over the country, and examined them for genetic changes that are linked to resistance to one of the most common over-the-counter lice treatments (pyrethrins, the active ingredient in “Rid”.) Sure enough, many of the samples included lice with one or more resistance factors. But there were some important caveats:

  • It’s not clear just how resistant the lice were, in practice. Knowing the genetics doesn’t predict what happens in real life.
  • Pyrethrin isn’t the only OTC lice treatment, just one of them.
  • The study itself hadn’t been published yet, and (as far as I can tell) is still not actually published.
  • The study was funded by Sanofi, a company that makes a prescription product that kills lice.

The excitement over that press release, and the dozens of news stories published in August about it, seemed to settle down until last week. Then, a fresh round of headlines appeared. These stories (for instance, here and here and here) all use very similar language, and segue in the second paragraph to talk about one specific alternative treatment for lice, highlighting the name of the product and place that sells it.

Is there any actual new news about this, since August? No. But a tag at the bottom of one of those stories gives us a clue – copyright “Frankly Media”, which is a public relations firm. These news stories, reappearing in dozens or maybe hundreds of places, are almost all word-for-word copies of what was a press release by an advertising agency for a specific product. The story, here, isn’t a new one. It’s just that someone wants to use unpublished research to scare you into buying something.

Lice themselves are a nuisance, yes, but keep in mind that they don’t spread disease, and don’t cause any symptoms other than an itchy scalp. There are several reasons why treatment of lice might not work:

  1. The child doesn’t actually have lice. This is very common. We know that many children who are diagnosed by school nurses or parents don’t actually have lice. If their scalps are itching for some other reason, lice therapy won’t “work.”
  1. Treatments aren’t used correctly, or aren’t repeated correctly. Some lice treatments need to be left on overnight, or applied to dry hair; almost all of them must be repeated in about 9 days. If the directions aren’t followed, lice treatments won’t be effective.
  1. Children get re-infested. Even after successful treatment, if a child returns to play with another kid with lice, the infestation will recur.
  1. Some lice really are resistant. We don’t know the exact percentage, but some lice aren’t responding as well to time-honored medications. We’ve known about this for at least 20 years. It’s not news. And there are both OTC and prescription alternatives, as well as non-medication based treatments that work very well.

All of this talk of “superlice” is overblown. Resistant lice don’t cause worse or “super” cases, and are easily treated with alternative approaches. Most lice can still be treated with any of a number of inexpensive OTC products, if used correctly. The only thing that’s spreading quickly are industries eager to make money off worried parents, and lazy websites re-publishing advertising copy in place of actual journalism.

toby determined

Explore posts in the same categories: Medical problems, The Media Blows It Again

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2 Comments on “Resistant “superlice” cause outbreak of poor journalism”

  1. wzrd1 Says:

    I’ve despaired of finding decent and accurate science and medical reporting in our press.
    Reporters regurgitate nonsense, rejected papers and “give balance” to cranks, rather than actually investigating like they did when I was a child.
    I’ve reached the point where I don’t even turn on any US news program, as it’s nearly all nonsense and commercials. I instead, read BBC news and Al Jazeera news (I personally know a fair number of the latter organization, courtesy of sharing a villa compound with the Al Jazeera correspondents).
    I especially avoid Fox News, as like a broken clock, they may be accurate twice a day.


  2. Erin Weber Says:

    What an interesting write-up, Roy! Thanks for giving us a reality check on this topic!


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