Like the plot of a bad sci-fi movie, a new generation of mutant lice has infested scalps across the country -- including here in Manitoba. And what's worse is these Franken-lice are resistant to traditional delousing treatments.
Scientists say the arsenal of cheap, safe insecticides that used to wash away the pesky bugs is failing us.
We need new chemicals to kill these mutated pests, they warn.
In Winnipeg, parents aren't waiting for science. They're resorting to the only surefire way to remove lice from hair: picking out the eggs, called nits, speck by speck, like they did centuries ago.
One former stay-at-home mom has a business called Slice of Lice that caters the service. It's a full-time job.
A study by medical experts at the University of Massachusetts says a new generation of mutant lice that are immune to drug-store insecticide shampoos is literally crawling through Canadian scalps.
Super-lice make up 97.1 per cent of Canadian lice infestations, it concluded in this month's Journal of Medical Entomology.
Once miracle killers, delousing preparations now only work on 2.9 per cent of Canadian head lice cases, said the study's author, J. Marshall Clark.
It's worse in the United States, where more than 99 per cent of lice are mutant.
The study author said it appears the nasty beasties have turned our weapon against us.
Insecticide shampoos breed resistance now, instead of killing off the bugs.
"You will kill some lice, leaving the more resistant lice to breed and create more resistant lice," the Massachusetts scientist told the National Post.
It turns out super-lice have a "TI" mutation that makes them resistant to the pyrethrins and pyrethroids that are the active ingredients in most anti-lice shampoos. And using the shampoos makes the infestation worse for the majority of cases.
Researchers based their findings on lice samples collected from 16 sites in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia using test subjects ranging in age from four to 64.
There were no samples from Manitoba, but that hardly matters anymore.
It turns out the mutant lice are very likely here.
Sarah Phillips in Southdale is growing a thriving business delousing kids who have the mutant lice.
"Parents are ecstatic I'm around, and everyone I've treated is hugging me as I walk out the door," said Phillips, who runs the Slice of Lice service.
"I literally pick each strand of hair, strand by strand and I pick out those nits, by hand. I do use a bit of non-toxic pesticide, a mint spray and some essential oils. It just loosens everything up."
Phillips said she launched her business in October after her own daughter came home from school with lice that wouldn't go away.
"My daughter, herself, had this strain of bug. None of the products worked, and the bugs were crawling around."
After weeks of trying different shampoos, Phillips took her daughter's head in hand and started picking through her hair.
It worked. "I picked everything out by hand." Then Phillips did some research, even flying to Florida for specialized training in the treatment. She's a certified head picker, she said.
And, with training and practice, she's got faster: A two-hour treatment for $150 will rid an average head of nits and lice. Nits stick to strands of hair, making them harder to pull off, which is where the mint oil helps, by loosening the hold eggs have on hair.
Phillips said parents frustrated with one failure after another over mutant infestations tell her there's a fine line between lice as a nuisance and lice as a health hazard.
"I just treated a little girl who'd been dealing with it for three months. The mom had been trying to get rid of it with no success."
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority deferred questions about mutant lice Thursday but did supply website links for information.
"Our public health folks have been involved in some education as in the links, but as it doesn't pose any health risks, it isn't something that is actively tracked either by the province or the region," a WRHA spokeswoman said.
One school division in Winnipeg that asked not to be identified checked and said they had no cases.
-- with files from the National Post