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While other scientists lose sleep over their studies, entomologist Richard Pollack loses blood.
The Harvard School of Public Health professor not only studies infectious diseases carried by parasitic insects—he lets his subjects feed off him.
Along with larger epidemics such as the West Nile virus and malaria, Pollack has compiled droves of research inspired by public concern about lice. He focuses on lice that feed on human blood, particularly the familiar childhood nuisance of head lice.
Though kids with colonies of head lice are often seen as a health hazard, Pollack says, he regards them as scientific gold mines.
“If we find a child infected, we harvest the lice and treat them with loving kindness,” he says.
Because the child cannot always make it to the lab, Pollack stores the lice in a hand-made chamber strapped around his forearm. The parasites have free reign to his blood and are healthily fed until they can be properly isolated and studied.
Pollack says he can feel them walking around and feeding, but overall they’re far less irritating than a mosquito. He only parts with the lice while showering and has no reservations about bringing them home.
“I never shared my lice with my wife,” Pollack says. “They’re too valuable.”
Pollack doesn’t even have leave his office to find specimen to study. Dozens of head lice evaluation request forms flow into his office daily. Worried locals download the form from the school’s website and tape on samples of what they think might be head lice for analysis. But less than half actually are—the vast majority of samples are debris, dandruff and insect appendages mistaken for the tiny parasite.
The forms also show that people have tried everything from olive oil to $1,200 treatments to no avail. Pollack believes that the real danger of head lice rests in people’s hysterical responses. Lice are actually innocuous, according to Pollack, and extensive use of insecticide treatments may actually cause greater harm to children.
“Lice evolved with us and depend on us,” Pollack says. “Too bad we can’t claim them as dependants on our IRS tax forms.”
Pollack is also currently involved in legal matters and policy issues regarding head lice. According to him, 100 Massachusetts children will be out of school on any given day because of lice. Pollack attributes this to the public’s “inflamed sensibilities” about the issue. And he says that school nurses and volunteers aren’t legally empowered or properly trained to recognize lice and send children home.
“Since when did science and good sense drive policy this country?” Pollack asks.
Pollack has also encountered conflicts of interest with the National Pediculosis Foundation’s (NPA) “no knit” policy which advocates sending children home from school if lice infestation persists.
“NPA’s policy is one that we believe be to be the most proactive possible because it’s not about dismissal, it’s about education in advance,” says NPA President and Executive Director Deborah Altschuler.
Pollack still holds that most lice outbreaks are a result of hysteria and that there is no medical justification for students to miss school.
Though head lice seems to be more common among younger age groups, Pollack also studies crab lice, commonly known as pubic lice, which are more common in the college scene.
Pollack says these crab-resembling parasites can be found in pubic hair, armpits, facial hair and even eyelashes.
“How do they get there, you can use your imagination,” Pollack says. These lice are transmitted through direct contact, typically by means of sexual activity or sharing the same bed.
Contrary to common belief, Pollack states that pubic lice are not spread by contact to toilet seats.
“The more promiscuous you are, the greater chance you’ll encounter these things,” Pollack says.
According to Pollack, another parasite college students need to be wary of is bed bugs. These secretive insects come out at night, hiding in bed frames, mattress folds and even piles of clothes left on the floor.
“People’s behavior are the weak link,” Pollack says. He also notes that bed bugs are resurfacing in dormitories because fewer people are using insecticides that kill bed bugs.
Though bed bugs survive years between feeds, when they do come for a “fountain drink,” their bites can cause allergic reactions.
According to Pollack, he’ll never get tired of his research.
“I just like playing with bugs,” Pollack says. “But its more than just play.”
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