Fuseworks Media

Kiwi mum develops nit treatment to reduce stigma & access barriers for vulnerable children

A Kiwi mother and entrepreneur has created the world’s first biofluorescent nit powder to improve visibility of head lice during treatment, address the stigma associated with the condition and increase access for vulnerable children.

The product, which has been recognised with a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal innovation award against 5,000 entrants from 190 countries, has now entered production for the domestic and international markets.

Recipient of the UN award, Kate Ricketts, first saw biofluorescence (where an organism emits light after being exposed to another a light source) demonstrated in an anti-theft product that was also observed to fluoresce insect exoskeletons.

Ricketts says the application of this technology inspired her to work with researchers at the University of Auckland to develop a new method of addressing head lice throughout each of the three stages of their lifecycle using photonics (study of light) and biofluorescence.

Head lice infestation (pediculosis) is a global public health problem affecting the scalp and skin of millions of people worldwide. Close interaction among tamariki aged between 3 and 12 places them at greatest risk of infestation, with research showing an estimated 19% prevalence among school children. The risk is believed to be higher among girls and those with long, dark hair.[1]

While usually treatable if caught in its early stages, the head louse is a bloodsucking ectoparasite and in extreme cases a heavily infested child could lose 21 mL of blood per month, a clinically significant amount that can lead to severe iron deficiency anaemia.[2]

Once contracted, lice multiply and spread quickly with a single female laying up to 10 eggs (nits) per day. The baby “nymphs” need a blood meal within minutes of hatching. Without early intervention to disrupt the life cycle, the condition can lead to significant health complications including skin lesions, infections and alopecia.[3]

The new treatment, ISpyNits, is believed to be the world’s first to address the entire lifecycle of lice, while at the same time tackling the stigma associated with the condition.

The process developed by Ricketts involves first coating the hair with a lotion to suffocate the live lice and then applying a biofluorescent powder which causes the eggs to glow under UV light, making them easier to identify and remove – reducing the need for additional treatments due to repeated re-infestation.

Ricketts says the new treatment approach is designed to not only address the treatment of nits but also educate and engage students, promoting scientific awareness, and demystifying and destigmatising the condition.

She says lice eggs are less than a millimetre in size however they contain proteins that can be stimulated by UV light to become more visible.

“Increasing the visibility of lice eggs is one of the key mechanisms in preventing re-infestation.

“The powder we have developed binds to the egg sheath to intensify the effect – which occurs because UV light has a shorter wavelength than visible light, and when it interacts with the biofluorescent proteins and the powder, it can stimulate them to emit light that is perceivable to the human eye.

“The faster and more effective we can make this treatment, the less time our tamariki will spend away from school. If we take this a step further and develop interactive education modules that allow students to experiment with biofluorescence, we can increase engagement in scientific learning and help remove the stigma that often goes along with the unknown,” she says.

Researchers say alternative approaches to the treatment of head lice infestations are critically needed as over-treatment of head lice using pesticide-based products has been linked to increased resistance and declining efficacy of these treatments.[4]

Dr Sarah Williams, senior lecturer and paediatric community nursing expert, says while untreated head lice are associated with a range of significant health complications, the impact on long-term mental health can also be concerning.

She says addressing the treatment of nits requires a community approach to destigmatise the condition and provide resources for treatment.

“The condition ranges from an inconvenience to a serious health issue depending on how early on it’s treated.

“Financially the treatment of head lice can create a considerable burden for many whanau. There is a cost associated with purchasing treatment products as well as the opportunity cost of having both caregiver and child kept at home, particularly when multiple treatments are required.

“As part of my work in schools, I have seen numerous cases of headlice – some so severe they will stay with me forever. I’ve also seen the physical and psychosocial effects these infestations can have on tamariki and their whanau.

“In one case of long-term, chronic infestation involving a young girl we worked with, the child’s hair was visibly crawling with thousands of lice. The child required antibiotics to treat a severely excoriated and infected scalp resulting from the infestation, before we could begin to address the nits or attempt combing for egg removal.

“One of the saddest things about this condition is the social stigma that can be associated with it, particularly in some of the more advanced cases.

“The child can face bullying, anxiety and isolation which can contribute negatively to their mental health and potentially impact their trajectory through the education system.

“It is often a very hard thing for them to come back from and requires a well developed support infrastructure that is not always present,” she says.

Dr Williams says greater coordination between the health and education sectors could help improve identification and management of conditions such as pediculosis, reducing the nationwide burden of the condition.

The Ministry of Health advises tamariki stay away from school or kura while infected with lice until treatment has begun – which Dr Williams says can contribute to increased school and workplace absenteeism and social stigma for some of our most vulnerable.[5]