An Adelaide study relies on lousy children coming to a clinic so researchers can collect the wingless insects living on their heads to find better lice treatments. 

By Sarah Keenihan

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Aiming to identify new products that either kill or repel the tiny parasites, the project is a tri-state collaborative effort between University of South Australia, University of Sydney and University of Canberra.

“In contrast to mosquitoes or other insects that we can maintain in laboratory colonies, lice do not live free-flowing in the environment,” said study leader Dr Craig Williams.

“We actually have to recruit lice living on children’s heads for the study. I’m not aware of anyone else in Australia who’s doing this kind of work,” he said.

Children attend the clinic with a guardian on a voluntary basis, and any lice found on their heads are removed and used to test new treatments.

“We’re looking at a range of possible treatment candidates, most of which are plant-derived,” said Sydney-based entomologist Dr Cameron Webb.

“These are new products that are not currently registered, and which might be perceived to be more natural alternatives to some of the chemicals currently available to treat head lice.”

Lice do not live free-flowing in the environment.

“What we do is harvest the lice – both adults and young lice, or nymphs – and then we run bioassays in the laboratory,” he said.

“We’re watching for products that kill the insects, but we also look at how agitated the lice become as a measure of whether materials act as repellants.”

Repellants hold particular interest as a way to prevent lice infestations becoming established, and therefore circumventing the need to treat. Treating head-lice can be a messy and lengthy process, and usually requires multiple applications due to the lifecycle of the parasite.

Head lice are small wingless insects that suck blood from scalps of their hosts. Although they rarely pose a serious threat to health, they are a social pest and create itching and irritation.

“Transmission is almost always hair:hair contact,” said Dr Webb.

“In primary school-aged kids, the head lice physically crawl from one child to the other.”

The scientists will published their data once the study is completed.