HL Deb 27 November 1995 vol 567 cc453-5

2.45 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their advice to parents who find their children have head lice.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege)

My Lords, we advise parents to treat their children as quickly as possible by using an appropriate lotion available from pharmacists through sale or prescription. Alternatively, parents may wish to comb their children's hair regularly with a fine tooth comb.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. Can she imagine the horror that I felt when I discovered that the lotions contain organophosphates, carbonates and pyrethroids; that it is recommended that the whole family is treated for head lice at the same time; and that there is no recommendation that pregnant women or young infants are not treated with the lotion? We know that, as regards all such products, the human embryo and young infants are the most susceptible to the poisons, which may cause not only the possibility of cancer but have subtle neurological effects and can cause severe behavioural problems in children.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, several lotions are available on the market and two of those contain no OPs at all. Indeed, malathion has such a low level degree of toxicity that we are advised by our expert committees that there is no danger in using it.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I speak as a parent. Is the Minister aware that, if this demon strikes, a small application, externally applied, of good Scotch whisky does the trick?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I should be very interested in the scientific evidence for that, but I believe that my noble friend may have a point.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when there are changes of policy as regards these lotions, whether or not they reflect the opinion of the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, the voluntary organisations concerned should be informed? Is she also aware that the main organisation involved, Community Hygiene, which runs a telephone hotline on this subject, was neither informed nor supported by the Department of Health when some of the products were withdrawn, although the department then asked the organisation to deal with a number of anxious parents who had questions on the subject? Surely the voluntary organisations which act in that way should be properly resourced and supported.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, we were well aware that when we had had a previous exercise in communications concerning the pill it was not very well handled. In this case, we were very anxious to get the information quickly to doctors, nurses and pharmacists before it became general knowledge. Therefore, we notified the voluntary organisation mentioned by the noble Baroness as soon as it was possible to do so after we had informed the professionals, which is what they had asked us to do on the previous occasion.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, do the Government endorse the bug-busting campaign to solve the head lice problem safely? In view of the need for people to be trained properly in the procedure, will the Government consider allowing GPs to prescribe the bug-busting kit, especially in view of the fact that it could save £3.5 million per year as against prescribing the chemical treatments?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, general practitioners clearly give the most appropriate advice to individuals concerned. In this case, that is usually the parents or the school. We have nurses attached to schools who are very much involved with that. As regards the bug-busting kit and campaign, we support that voluntary organisation with annual grants. Indeed, we admire some of the work that it does.

Lord De Freyne

My Lords, considering what has been said about this problem, does my noble friend agree that whisky is bad for the head?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I have heard of vinegar being used as a shampoo but never whisky. I thought that my noble friend Lord Gowrie was providing a rather quirky solution to a quirky problem.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, if whisky does the trick, would not surgical spirit do it just as well but much cheaper?

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I think that these are a lot of lousy suggestions.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, will the noble Baroness reconsider her answers about the insecticides which are used in the shampoos and lotions? So far as I can make out, no research has been carried out as to their effect on the immune and neurological systems of young children. More and more doctors are reporting to me that patients showing ME symptoms have been using louse treatments. In one case, I heard of a mother who had shampooed the hair of her child 17 times with a particular organophosphate treatment because the lice were not responding to it. There now seems to be some resistance by the bugs to those products.

Baroness Cumberlege

My Lords, I should like to make it quite clear that we always act on the advice of our expert committees. The committee on carcinogenicity advised us in this case about this particular product called Carbaryl. I am aware that the committee is concerned about all the applications which people are using for all sorts of different reasons, including agricultural and domestic reasons. I believe that the committee is aware of what is going on. In this case it was not an actual risk but a theoretical risk, but we felt that we should err on the side of caution. Indeed, that is why it is now a pharmacist only product and is not available over the counter.