Head Lice, Getting Drug-Resistant, Shut Down Idaho School

PHOTO: Madisyn DiNello, 11, of New Haven, Conn., uses an all-natural shampoo that her mother is convinced keeps her long hair lice-free.
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Maggie Sarner admits she is "grossed out" by head lice, those nasty little creatures that lay their eggs in the scalp and get passed from child to child at school.

The Hollywood, Fla., mother of three and hair salon owner said she gets at least two letters a year from her daughters' elementary school warning her of an outbreak.

After her 8- and 10-year-olds returned from camp last summer, they picked up a case of head lice.

"I panicked," she said.

"We took them to the clinic where they sold [treatment] products and removed everything," Sarner said. "But in terms of prevention, it didn't help them from getting it again."

This week, a Kuna, Idaho, elementary school closed for two days after 60 students and nine staff members were diagnosed with head lice.

Other schools have reported serious outbreaks in the last several years, one after children reportedly played a game called do-rag tag, sharing head scarves.

An estimated 12 million cases of head lice are diagnosed in the United States each year, and medical experts say that while they don't kill, they can be an irritating nuisance for parents and a public relations embarrassment for schools.

Officials at Kuna's Indian Creek Elementary School did not return calls from ABCNews.com, but sent a letter to parents urging them to check their children and get treatment while the school was cleaned.

In the past, over-the-counter products like Nix and RID have been effective, but now many cases are becoming drug resistant, so head lice outbreaks like the one in Idaho are on the rise.

"People get really freaked out when their kids get it," said Dr. Ari Brown, an Austin, Texas, pediatrician and author of "Baby 411."

"They think, 'Oh, my gosh, my kids are dirty.' But lice don't care what economic class you are in," she said. "Parents also worry that they are going to get it, too. They are disgusted by the whole concept."

Head lice are small, wingless insects about the size of a sesame seed that only live in the human scalp and feed by sucking blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The crawling lice or their eggs, known as nits, can be found attached to the hair.

"Lice have this social stigma and all kinds of stuff wrapped up in it and it's certainly no fun to deal with -- but it's not such a big deal," said Brown.

Lice actually prefer straight to curly hair, and for that reason, African American children are less-affected than Caucasians.

"My daughter had them three times, and I have to say, I am really glad she loves reading books, because it can take an hour or more, especially with long hair, to do the treatment and comb it out," said Brown. "That's the thing -- there's the huge hassle factor, too."

And much to the dismay of health-conscious parents, when standard treatments don't work, they must turn to expensive prescription drugs that contain pesticides, like malathion.

"Boy does it work," said Brown, "but you don't want to stand next to an open flame when it's on the kid's head."

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