Lice Work, If You Can Get It

By Elizabeth Agnvall
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 18, 2007; Page HE01

The world is full of lousy jobs, but Karen Franco just might have one of the lousiest. As a professional nitpicker, the 45-year-old Silver Spring woman spends a good part of her week searching for live lice in hair and their tiny eggs, called nits.

Armed with a fine-toothed metal comb, wooden barbecue skewers (to part the hair and clean the comb), magnifying glass, head lamp and scissors, she answers up to seven calls a week from parents desperate to rid their households of the parasites.

About Lice

Franco has been busy lately -- some say, with reason. Lice complaints peak in December and January, according to University of Florida entomologist Phil Koehler, perhaps because that's when the pests reach a critical mass in school or kids are more apt to get cuddly with friends and relatives. (Harvard School of Public Health entomologist Richard Pollack dismisses "lice season" as a myth. New year "increases" probably stem from stepped-up head checks after holiday vacations, he says.)

Franco, a part-time art teacher, stumbled into debugging 10 years ago when lice invaded her oldest daughter's third-grade class. Dissatisfied with the school's lice control measures, Franco and eight other parents got permission to screen all the children. They found lice or nits on about a third of them, including her daughter.

"That day was horrifying," she says. Her 2-year-old had lice as well. "From that point on, somebody had to step up, and we needed to deal with it correctly. It became a personal mission." Franco turned herself into the go-to person for lice advice in her school and community.

Between 6 million and 12 million children nationally, most between ages 6 and 12, are estimated to have lice infestations each year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Because lice cases don't have to be reported to state departments of health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's impossible to know how many Washington area children are affected. But one statistic suggests how common the problem is locally: Montgomery County records show that 1,356 students required treatment for lice last year, up from 1,073 the year before. For the past five weeks, Goshen Elementary School in Gaithersburg has battled an outbreak affecting more than 45 children and 27 staff members.

Today, Franco gets $50 an hour for her fine-toothed combing. She says she has seen everything from one tiny nit on a scalp to cases "where the entire head is a moving mass of bugs."

While hers might seem an unpopular profession, some major cities are, well, fairly crawling with professional nitpickers. Hair Fairies is dedicated to outing lice in Los Angeles, its home town; the business also has salons in San Francisco, New York and Chicago.

Maggie Prieto met Franco this spring after her third-grade daughter was sent home from Lafayette Elementary in Northwest Washington with lice. By the time she called Franco, Prieto had already tried an over-the-counter lice treatment, a comb-through and prescription Ovide, which she used despite her worries that the active ingredient, malathion, was toxic.

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