I WAS LIVING in South Carolina when I escaped the first invasion of head lice. I was working as a relief veterinarian (9th inning, generally, extra if it was all tied up) all over Georgia and the Carolinas, when my then-girlfriend discovered the wages of volunteering to work with minors, which she did regularly (no good deed goes unpunished). I laughed from wherever it was on the coast I was spaying kitties and giving dogs vaccinations they actually needed, while back in our Appalachian mountain home my dutiful live-in girlfriend and KB, our boarder, shampooed, picked, vacuumed and did the wash. (Was my absence during this period of duress a critical factor in the eventual demise of our relationship? I can only wonder. Note to self: breakups can be achieved by liberally sprinkling pillowcases with lice and nits, then leaving for a week. Avoids uncomfortable talk about not being communicative and leaving toilet seat up.) By the time I came back from yet another marathon session of animal care, once again brain-softened from the smell of disinfectant and exhausted and grouchy from sleepless nights in motels, there was nary a nit nor a louse to be found.
We are talking about head lice here, causative agent Pediculus capitis humanus. Over the years I have devised a scale of the relative disgust caused by various infectious agents. It’s not really very useful for anything medically, except it does have some social utility. For example, you may discuss a Lyme disease infection at the dinner table, but talks of your child’s pinworms, however benign they may seem to you, will cause people to put down their forkfuls of vermicelli, no matter how tasty.
In any case, the general rule of the Disgust Scale is that infections go in the following order of rising disgust:
1. Viral infections, such as a cold or influenza
2.Bacterial infections, such as Lyme disease or bacterial pneumonia
3.Fungal infections, such as ringworm or athlete’s foot.
4. Parasitic infections, such as Guinea worm or intestinal roundworms.
Obviously, this is just a general rule, and has nothing to do with the alarm provoked by a disease, or by its actual seriousness. A case of flesh-eating bacteria is clearly both more serious and more off-putting than a case of ringworm (which is neither ringed nor a worm, cf. Cavius porcellus, or the Guinea pig). A case of herpes labialis vs. strep throat? You be the judge.
Also obvious is that there is variation within each of these categories, even with the type of parasite. For example, while head lice infestations are disturbing, body lice infestations are downright gross. And crab lice? I haven’t heard these brought up at afternoon tea since I was in college.
TO BE CONTINUED….
On our New Year’s Day post we failed to identify, the lovely Sharmila Tagore, a Bollywood queen of the ’60s, shone here in a picture from her film Evening in Paris, waterskiing down the Champs-Élysées.