January 14, 2013

Save The Pubic Lice! Or, Adventures In Lousy Reporting

Culture, Health, News, Research 3 Comments

Brazilians are killing crabs and genital lice?

Well, if anyone ever wondered why scientists hate to speak to people in the media, now we know for sure.

Yesterday, Bloomberg ran a piece about pubic lice titled “Brazilian Bikini Waxes Make Crab Lice Endangered Species” that might have been brilliant (because: pubes!) except it wasn’t. Not even a little bit.

The article starts by saying crabs are disappearing, a fact its authors never get around to corroborating. They provide interesting data about one Australian clinic that hasn’t seen a case of pubic lice since 2008 but get data from no other clinics. Later they note that crabs can be self-treated with insecticide yet fail to provide further information — did legislation make insecticide available to the public after 2008 in Australia? Was a more effective type of insecticide introduced? A change in the form of application? Have sales figures among the major insecticide brands suffered in the country since waxing started to take off?

No, none of that. But why are we thinking about journalism right now? Have we no heart? CRABS ARE DYING OUT AND DOCTORS SAY THAT BIKINI WAXES ARE THE REASON.

Specifically, Brazilians, the type of waxing that removes all the hair in the pubic area. No doctor quoted in the piece said that the cause of lice demise was Brazilians. Basil Donovan, a physician at the Sydney Sexual Health Centre (the clinic that hadn’t seen a louse in years) said it was “better grooming.” The closest expert to make any such statement, perhaps, was Ian F. Burgess, a British entomologist, who pointed a finger at pubic grooming and “other aspects of body hair depilation.”

The Brazilian link appears toward the end of the article, where its authors cite a letter in the journal Sexually Tranmitted Infections written in 2006 that suggests there may exist a correlation between decrease of body lice and increasing popularity of genital waxing among patients at the General Infirmary in Leeds, England. But, as we know, correlation does not equal causation. The authors of the letter are still looking over data and won’t be presenting their findings until May (at which time you may expect more articles about the demise of the pubic louse). What to one is a springboard for more research is pure linkbait to others.

As mentioned earlier, the authors of the article never got around to giving us factual information relating to the status of the pubic louse. They do concede: “Incidence data aren’t kept by the World Health Organization in Geneva because the gray, six-legged, millimeter-long louse doesn’t transmit disease, and national authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and U.K.’s Health Protection Agency don’t collect the information.” So, really, no one knows if lice are truly becoming extinct at all.

“It makes sense from the point of the view of the biology of the beast, but how you’d ever find out, I don’t know,” Richard Russell, the director of medical entomology at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, told Bloomberg reporters, fulfilling the role of careful science-type person every reporter needs to close a sensationalist article so they can still sleep at night.

At least Bloomberg tried to cover their bases. The Daily Mail had “Add this to the list of ever growing reasons to praise the bikini wax — it may have made pubic lice an endangered species.” Rawstory had “The pubic lice may have met a predator it can’t overcome: the Brazilian bikini wax.” And Gizmodo “According to doctors, public lice or crabs or whatever the hell that makes people scratch down there is disappearing because everybody is getting Brazilian waxes.” Everyone grab the quotes from the scientists in the original piece and take them out of context to support! Ready, set, go!

Okay, enough righteous indignation for you. Go read this for a lol.

Header image from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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