‘Mutant’ head lice study funded by companies that treat head lice

Mother checking childs head for lice with a comb
Mother checking childs head for lice with a comb

A study gained wide attention this week for its claim that super-resistant, mutant head lice are infesting half the country.

Head Lice in 25 States Are Now Resistant to Treatment,’’ read TIME’s headline.

‘Super lice’ makes an appearance in GA, SC and NC,’’ said a Fox affiliate.

What most news outlets didn’t report, however, was that the study was partially funded by pharmaceutical companies that make expensive, prescription-only head lice remedies.

The “mutant’’ narrative reached such a fever pitch this week that a Dallas station reported a possible link between head lice and selfies. CNN was the rare news agency that reported the pharmaceutical company funding for the study.

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What sparked the head-lice headline epidemic was a talk by Drs. John Clark of the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Kyong Yoon of Southern University of Illinois at Edwardsville, who came to Boston Tuesday to present their findings on the state of American lice.

They said their study has determined that lice in at least 25 states have developed resistance to over-the-counter treatments and recommended that patients seek out prescription treatments, which can range in cost from $100 to more than $350.

“There is recourse by means of prescription drugs,’’ Yoon told U.S. News & World Report,another outlet that didn’t note the pharma funding. “Just go to your doctor before you go to your drug store.’’

One prescription lice treatment is Sklice, produced by Sanofi Pasteur—one of the pharmaceutical companies that partially funded Clark and Yoon’s research. Clark told Boston.com the research was also funded in part by Topaz pharmaceuticals, which Sanofi Pasteur bought in 2012 after the FDA approved Sklice.

The study’s initial research, conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Sanofi Pasteur recently contributed an additional $180,000 of the $3-million total research cost, Clark said.

He denied any conflict of interest.

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“We’ve received three different NIH grants,’’ he said. “The general feeling about the work is not that it’s been tainted because we’ve taken money from pharmaceutical companies.’’

A prescription for Sklice can cost around $300. (According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, meanwhile, one of the most effective treatments against lice is a comb.)

Clark told Boston.com that using $20 over-the-counter shampoos can ultimately cost as much as prescription shampoos since the less-expensive treatments may require repeat uses.

He said that none of the medical professionals with whom he has spoken believe it is “worth your time or energy to buy the over-the-counter products — they would say it’s not working.’’

Over-the-counter products for controlling head lice. —AP Photo/J. David Ake

The lice study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Entomology before Clark and Yoon presented it at Boston’s American Chemical Society meeting.

It is also not unusual for phamaceutical companies to pay for research, but such funding can raise questions about the independence of a study’s findings. Dr. Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of The New England Journal of Medicine, recently wrote an editorial on how funding sources can affect biases in research.

Drazen said the most crucial question is not who is paying for the study, but whether or not bias is present in the study itself. But he takes issue with Clark and Yoon advising patients on what type of treatment to seek.

“We think people should look at the data and ought to be able to decide for themselves,’’ he said.

Dr. Richard Pollack, a public health entomologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, doesn’t think the research supports the researchers’ suggestions that over-the-counter treatments are ineffective.

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“Where is the basis for those statements? Have they gone out and conducted a poll to see what physicians would recommend?’’ he said. “I kind of doubt it.’’

Pollack, who has conducted research on the overdiagnosis of head lice, said few children treated for head lice with over-the-counter products actually have head lice. Their parents are just misdiagnosing them, he said.

“Some folks would interpret the recent findings to mean that all hope is lost for treating with the OTC products,’’ he said in an email. “I’m not so confident of that line of thinking.’’

(Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the study was not peer-reviewed before it was presented. In fact, it was peer-reviewed and published in the Journal of Medical Entomology.)

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