Written by Andy Gramolini
General Knowledge About Lice
Lice is a very common parasite that embeds itself within the skin or hair of children and adults all over the world. For instance, in London, England, according to a number of medical health reports from various boroughs, there have been numerous cases of lice throughout the 20th century.
Although it is now known that cleanliness and personal hygiene are unconnected to head lice infestations, in the past they were strongly associated with filth, personal neglect of cleanliness and poverty. Throughout the MOH reports there is a strong tendency to blame poor mothers for lack of domestic skills when their children got lice. For example, in 1933 the MOH of Fulham described “Chronic infestation by head and body lice” as “indications of gross neglect of personal cleanliness.” He attributed the decline in lice infestations among children to public health efforts to educate poor mothers on housekeeping skills:
The work of the Health Visitors at the Maternity and Child Welfare Centres and their visits to the homes has had a great influence in educating mothers of families regarding personal hygiene and in improving home conditions.
While he briefly acknowledged that the condition of the homes of the poor – a factor outside their control – might play a role in lice infestations, he emphasized the role and responsibility of women in maintaining the cleanliness of the home. (Medical Health Report of Fulham)
Lice in Children
As far as the children of London were concerned, they were afflicted by lice the most frequently of any age group. This was reflected in the Medical Officer of Health Reports, and modern entomological studies confirm that children get lice the most out of any age group. The age range that is most susceptible to head lice is usually between the 3 and 12 years old. This is due to the fact that our bodies over time have more of an acidic skin layer, but at a young age the pH level of the skin is usually neutral (Head Lice Center). Their bodies have not had time to create a defense against these parasites. This is not to say that people with a more acidic skin cannot get parasites, it just happens less frequently.
Like what was said above, the overall personal cleanliness of children in London has improved a lot over the years. A number of Medical Officer of Health reports over the years reported a decline in the number of children getting lice and that was seen as a very good sign. Lice are still a very common parasite, but they are seen less frequently. The medical health reports even have seen a decline in the number of cases of lice in adults, but adults already had a lot more fewer cases reported.
Lice in Adults
As far as adults are concerned, they rarely get head lice, however they most commonly get body lice. According to the Medical Health Report of Westminster City for 1930, out of 634 head lice patients, only 5 were adults; and out of 291 body lice patients, 284 of them were adults. This just goes to show that body lice is the most common in adults and head lice is the most common in children. There is no real explanation for why that would be the case, but there have been reports that suggest that since adults are most often hard at work and their skin is very warm and moist, that would be the most common reason for why lice would be attracted to the body rather than the hair. In addition to this theory, adults do in fact keep better hygiene than children and are less susceptible to be in close contact with someone who has lice compared to a child because children touch a lot and don’t really think about the consequences that could arise from it. The reason why adults get infected by lice less goes back to the skin becoming more acidic over time as well. Now, some adults are not susceptible to lice at all and other adults might be very susceptible. Everyone has a different level of acidity to their skin, which makes some obviously more susceptible than others depending how close they are to a neutral pH.
The association between lice and poverty, and the filthy state of poor homes, continued to be a theme in the MOH reports, even though it was not supported by clear evidence. For example, the Medical Health Report for Shoreditch in 1934 states:
During the year the houses of some 16 children, 1 boy and 15 girls, notified as verminous by the School Medical Officer, were reported with a view to the homes, bedding, etc., where necessary, being dealt with by the Sanitary Authority, whilst the children were cleaned and their clothing disinfected at the cleansing stations of the London County Council. In two of the homes evidence of poverty was marked. No evidence of lice was found in connection with any of the homes. [my emphasis]
Lice is still a prevalent issue in London and will continue to be all around the world as well. But, the number of cases of lice has gone down drastically over the decades and it will continue to decrease as more people become aware of it and the way it can be obtained. Children will always be more susceptible to this parasite.