School is back in session and that means it is prime season for head lice.
Sales of lice prevention and treatment products are now spiking the world over, medical experts are adding new warnings to parents to check their children’s heads for this parasite, startups are promoting their latest innovative gadgets against these pests, and parents are praying against all odds that their kids will not come home with an itchy head.
Jerusalem-based Devorah Ashkenazi, a 31-year-old mother of three, loves this time of year. After all, she’s a professional nitpicker. Literally.
“I love it,” Ashkenazi says of her career choice as a lice removal expert. “People come from all over the country, they’re desperate. Some people freak out that they have lice. I try to make it fun, calm them down. I try to make it less traumatic. The best part is helping people get clean.”
Ashkenazi grew up with lice. Her mother, Dalya Harel, moved from Israel to the United States, and though trained as a nurse, became the go-to Lice Lady in New York. She has been profiled for her unique lice treatment methods by the likes of The New York Times, Time Out, Wall Street Journal and others.
All Harel’s children – including Ashkenazi, her sixth of nine children – work in lice detection and removal. They’re known as the Lice Busters.
“It’s our favorite topic to talk about,” says Ashkenazi, making this reporter scratch her head while trying to understand.
In Israel, head lice infestation is such a persistent public health problem that some 15 percent of all four-to-13-year old children are actively infested with head lice at any given moment, according to an April report in the Israel Journal of Entomology.
In fact, two-thirds of school-age children in Israel – and over 59 percent of mothers of school-age children — will contract lice, according to the report.
Add to that the beloved character in Israeli literature known as Nehama the Louse, an adventurous louse, brought to life by author Meir Shalev, who wants to see the world. This story is read to children in kindergarten and day cares – and teaches them to accept Nehama the Louse as a part of their day-to-day lives.
So while schools in North America send children with lice home, the Israeli Education Ministry has said Israeli kids can be taught about how to prevent it but cannot have their head checked by a teacher or be told to stay away from school.
“In the US, it’s a stigma to have lice,” says Ashkenazi who grew up in New York and today calls Jerusalem her home. “In Israel, not only is it not a stigma to have lice, it’s not seen as something negative. It is not an embarrassment.”
Go to any pharmacy around the country and lice shampoos are stacked on the shelves for all to see. Alternatively, in North America, there’s often a need to whisper to the pharmacist that you’re in need of treatment.
“In Israel, having lice shows that you were in close contact with someone you love and got a special gift. Lice prefer clean heads so it’s actually a compliment,” says Ashkenazi.
Compliment or not, no one likes lice. However, these unwanted six-legged temporary tenants love hot and humid places to nest and infest. So, in places like Israel, lice is an ever-present plague.
“There are many ways to prevent lice and it doesn’t take so long but because people don’t take it seriously and don’t check their children’s heads on a regular basis [it is a constant problem],” says Orly Leigh, a mother of two school-age children in Tel Aviv. “My kids brush their hair with a fine-comb twice a week. They can scream as much as they want if it hurts. I’m not letting lice into my home.”
Not everyone is as vigilant. And the lice treatment industry banks on these laxer folk.
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The number of cases of human head lice infestations continues to increase worldwide reaching hundreds of millions yearly, according to the report by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers in the Israel Journal of Entomology.
As such, over-the-counter lice shampoos and anti-lice kits grow in number from year to year.
But there is no published data on the efficacy of these products, and a 2016 study of lice published by the Journal of Medical Entomology, actually found that two thirds-to-three quarters of lice are immune to chemical products marketed to keep them at bay. Super Lice, anyone?
Reports show the treatment of head lice is a $1.8 billion market globally.
Local entrepreneurs are also taking on these incredibly annoying wingless parasites and their eggs with homegrown blue-and-white innovation.
Tel Aviv-based ParaSonic says on its company website that it is producing a non-toxic, natural solution using ultrasonic waves to eradicate lice, fleas, and ticks, with just one combing treatment.
“Short pulsed ultrasound waves generated by the teeth of the wide-toothed comb destroy the parasites. The comb simultaneously sprays a natural solution onto the hair to augment the efficacy of the ultrasound and significantly increase the lice and eggs’ mortality,” the company site reads. The ultrasonic pulses damage the internal soft tissues of the lice and they die off, while the eggs’ content leak out, killing them as well. The solution is patent-pending.
Meanwhile, Novokid lice treatment, made by TechCare in Rosh HaAyin, is a CE approved medical device that vaporizes head lice and nits.
“For those infected with lice, the treatment options have been limited to pesticide-based solutions that have very limited efficacy and carry significant risks. Novokid has been scientifically proven as an effective treatment while being cost-effective, efficient and safe,” Zvi Yemini, Chairman and CEO of TechCare said in a press statement about the 10-minute dry treatment that requires no rinsing or washing.
NovoKid entered the Dutch market in February. In June, it hit local pharmacy shelves.
“Novokid is remarkably convenient, as a home use device, dry treatment that requires no rinsing or washing, and only takes 10 minutes to administer. Second, for safety, since the device is a 100 percent natural, plant-based and pesticide-free product. And finally, since Novokid can also be used as a maintenance and preventative treatment if used regularly, we envision the product will provide an opportunity for repeat business from our end customers,” said Maarten Wijsmuller, CEO of MWMedical B.V., in a press statement.
Whether innovative gadgets, shampoos or nit-kits are the answer to this itchy problem stills remains to be seen.
The community of professional lice ninjas are growing in Israel, and although once seen as a “stigma” to have your lice cleaned out professionally, today going to someone like Ashkenazi is becoming more acceptable.
At the end of the day, it’s all about maintenance. “If everyone combed their hair once a week [using a special nit brush] as preventative, it wouldn’t be such a problem,” say Ashkenazi and Leigh. But too many people are nonchalant and don’t take preventative methods, and as such, concludes Ashkenazi, “there’s more than enough lice to go around.”
Viva Sarah Press is a journalist and speaker. She writes and talks about the creativity and innovation taking place in Israel and beyond. www.vivaspress.com