Pity the poor pubic louse. Every few years, a story comes along predicting its demise, most recently a Bloomberg article that blames the increasing number of women – and men – who remove their pubic hair. Think of it as deforestation on a massive, global scale.It wasn’t much different in 2006, when doctors Nicola Armstrong and Janet Wilson, two sexual health specialists, in a letter titled “Did the Brazilian kill the pubic louse?”, raised the possible link between the decreasing number of people coming to their clinics with public lice, and increase in the number with shaved, trimmed or waxed pubic hair. Where does this leave the woman who has so far resisted all patriarchal and capitalist pressures to wax her bits until they resemble a child’s, but would like to do her bit for parasite annihilation? Tricky.
The problem with all such reports is data. Armstrong and Wilson acknowledged their study had “many important methodological flaws”, such as not studying pubic-hair removal rates, and whether people with pubic lice were finding it hard to get appointments. (They also didn’t mention the possibility that people are self-medicating with over-the-counter products rather than going to an STD clinic.) Reliable figures elsewhere are non-existent – a spokesperson for the Health Protection Agency says, rather aptly: “We don’t have anything in that area.”
Bloomberg quoted doctors who have gone years without seeing a case of pubic lice, and in the UK doctors are reporting seeing fewer cases: Peter Greenhouse, a consultant in sexual health in Bristol says “I’ve probably gone about six months without seeing a person with pubic lice; 20 years ago, we would have seen several a week”. But doctors in other areas of the country don’t believe they are really declining. “I have seen a change in people’s pubic-hair grooming practices,” says Dr Claudia Estcourt, consultant in sexual health at Barts and the London NHS trust. “But in terms of pubic lice we’ve still got a problem and I’m not sure we’re seeing fewer cases. We’re also facing problems in lice becoming resistant to some of the treatments available.”
Ian Burgess, entomologist and director of the Medical Entomology Centre, who was also quoted in the Bloomberg piece, admits data is scarce. Even back in the hirsute 70s, when researching the insects, he had an arrangement with several STI clinics to collect samples (although he says people would often remove any lice they could find before they even went to the clinic), the prevalence “was considered low even then”. If there is any truth in the extinction of the pubic louse, is the trend for removing some, or all, pubic hair to blame? “It will certainly contribute,” he says. Will they ever become extinct? It’s possible, he says. Young adults have always mainly been at risk, “and if that particular group change their sexual habits or their hygiene habits such that you eliminate large parts of the population from the risks of infestation, then they go. Obviously, that has to happen worldwide.”
One naturalist, Kees Moeliker, writer and curator at the Rotterdam Natural History museum, was worried enough by the 2006 report that he started collecting lice. “I wanted to have the last specimen for the museum,” he says. On a trip to the UK to give some lectures, he called on the British people to donate their pubic lice. Sadly, nobody did, “but here in the Netherlands, over the course of the years I have built up a nice collection. It’s part of the collection now, just like all of the other little creatures we collect.” He says he won’t mourn Pthirus pubis if it ever does become extinct, but he uses their plight to “make people aware of biodiversity and problems of habitat destruction”.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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