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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 29, 2002

Tiny 'uku still big problem for families

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Health Writer

'Uku — tiny bugs the size of a sesame seed — come out every year at nearly every school and strike fear into the hearts of parents as embarrassed kids scratch their heads.

'Uku data

Name: 'Uku, head lice, pediculosis

Lifespan: 30 days

A typical colony on your head: May average only about a dozen adult lice but may have hundreds of eggs or nits

They eat: By sucking blood through a little opening they make in the scalp.

How are they spread: By direct contact from one person to another or from a person's combs and brushes, carpets and furniture.

How do I know if my child has 'uku? Usually, a child will notice an itchy head. The lice can often be found on the back of the neck and behind the ears. The eggs are whitish ovals stuck to individual hairs close to the scalp.

How can I get rid of them? There are various over-the-counter shampoos sold to kill the insects as well as some organic products. Some people use olive oil to smother the insects. A specially made fine-tooth comb is used to remove the eggs.

Source: State Health Department

'Uku, or head lice, spread from child to child in homes, schools, buses, anywhere that people gather. Traditionally, reports of the bugs shoot up in September, when most kids are back in school.

School health aide Evie Chun has been dealing with the tiny critters for about 16 years and it's clear by the exasperation in her voice that it's an emotional problem for the children and their families.

"I have been called every name in the book by parents," she said, "because parents feel the school is dirty, that's why they get the disease."

A big part of her job is educating everyone. "It's no one's fault when you get head lice. It's just something you get," Chun said. "It's no shame to get it. It's a shame to keep it on your hair. It's not a life-threatening thing."

She tells the children that she knows from personal experience: She's gotten them and so have her children. Now Chun works in Honolulu at Kuhio Elementary School, which has seen 'uku come and go but has not ever had a big problem.

Principal Evelyn Hao said with the cooperation of Chun and parents, "we're able to prevent it from becoming a problem."

The state Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention don't consider head lice a reportable condition so it's hard to gauge exactly what the trend is from year to year. But they know that some children miss school because many schools won't let a child return until all the lice are gone.

Some schools won't let a child return until the lice eggs or nits are also gone. Early this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a bulletin advising schools against such a strict policy. The association said it has heard reports of "children missing weeks of school and even being forced to repeat a grade because of head lice."

Ruth Ota, chief of the state Health Department's public health nursing branch, oversees the school health aides at 255 public schools statewide.

Ota said although absences caused by head lice aren't tracked, the department sees the problem at every school at one time or another.

She said at least 102 schools have their aides dealing with 'uku more than two days a week, 19 of them deal with it about one day each week, 33 schools deal with it less than once a week and 101 schools deal with it once a month or less.

Ota said she doesn't believe that the problem has grown much worse although manufacturers of the various children's shampoos see millions of dollars in sales each year.

"I think it's always been there," Ota said. "People are treating it more."

Ota said that her aides try to work with families to get rid of lice as quickly as possible. "There is no reason why a child should be absent from school because of 'uku."

Chun said she hopes people realize three things: Head lice are more of a nuisance than anything else; you can get rid of them by following the guidelines; and they cannot jump on your hair.

She said people need to treat the heads of those affected, use a fine-tooth comb to get rid of the eggs, and clean the house by washing bedding and brushes, and vacuuming the couch and carpet to eliminate them.

"It is a problem, but it's a problem that can be solved," Chun said, "so don't go badgering your child or beating yourself up."

Kathleen Street, is public health nurse for the Hana District, where 'uku have been a chronic problem. She said the nuisance turns into a social and educational issue when the lice keep coming back. "Then the kids get real shame and they're being picked out because the other kids know they have 'uku."

Street helped work to have part of a federal grant to the Hana community devoted to the purchase of shampoo to deal with the head lice.

As part of the grant, the community is using "$1,000 a year for three years so that it would cut down on the number of absentees because of 'uku infestation."

Street said she has seen a difference since the free shampoo became available in April in their 2,500-member community. She said families are more likely to use the product because they don't have to spend $16 or $18 on a bottle.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2429.