Friday, July 4, 2014

Look! Nits, everyone!

A recent Roy Morgan poll about New Zealander's concerns found that 44% of us rated an economic issue as being the most important problem facing New Zealand. This suggests 44% of us fret about weighty matters like interest rates, the exchange rate, bank lending ratios and what the Reserve Bank's inflation target should be. But a closer look at the numbers shows that this is not the case. By far the biggest concern (18%) is "Poverty/ The Gap Between Rich & Poor/ Imbalance of Wealth". Here's a breakdown of the 44%:

This has evidently also shown up in National's focus groups as well because they have been keen to show they're pretending to do something about poverty, especially child poverty. Which brings us to the following bizarre parliamentary exchange about headlice and poverty between National's Melissa Lee and Social Development Minster Paula Bennett. Here's the uncorrected transcript:

10. Schools—Treatment of Head Lice
[Sitting date: 13 May 2014. Volume:698;Page:17745. Text is subject to correction.]

10. MELISSA LEE (National) to the Minister for Social Development: What recent announcements has she made about helping parents deal with the nits epidemic?
Hon PAULA BENNETT (Minister for Social Development): There are some odd days in Parliament. Thanks to nearly $1 million in Government funding, KidsCan will be putting special chairs in 117 low-decile schools and then funding combs, treatments, and specialist nit-busters—
Hon ANNETTE KING: What a nitwit policy this is.
Hon PAULA BENNETT: I cannot hear you. Spit it out. Come on. What is your problem?
Mr SPEAKER: Order! That just shows the difficulty we get into with this constant barrage of interjection coming across the floor. Would the Minister please complete her answer.
Hon PAULA BENNETT: Sorry, Mr Speaker. So we have got 117 low-decile schools and then funding for combs, treatments, and specialist nit-busters to treat the kids for nits. Kids will be treated as many times as they need to be treated to get rid of their nits, and their parents and siblings can also get treated in order to eradicate the pests from the whole family, if necessary.
MELISSA LEE: Why is treating nits so important?
Hon PAULA BENNETT: It is more than just a hassle. It is more than just a hassle. Some children are getting serious infections due to untreated nits, which can require hospital treatment. I heard the story last week of two young 6-year-old girls who actually had their heads shaved just to get rid of them. This new programme will reach 24,000 children and their families and will go a long way to helping those low-income families.

Special chairs?! What sort of chairs? One hopes this is a transcription error. The Minister then goes on to say that the government is funding KidsCan to provide combs, treatment and...specialist nit busters? What is a specialist nit buster? Do you get one with the special chair? This generous service will go to 117 low-decile schools. There's that many low-decile schools in Auckland alone, so this programme is not providing comprehensive coverage. We are also told that kids "and their parents and siblings can also get treated" if necessary. Bring out the sheep dip!

So how does this work? Are kids given their combs and treatment in front of other kids? Or is this process one such that the combs and treatment quietly get dropped in a rubbish bin on the way home from school (children have a way of subverting our best intentions)? I'm sure schools have developed ways to do this sensibly but there seems plenty of room for miscommunication if children with headlice are being sent to the nit buster.

The Otago Public Health Nursing Service has found subsidized ‘Headlice Treatment’ to have short term benefits, compared with ‘Detection Combing’. This usually involves a 'whole school' approach with ongoing support to both school staff and families. It also helps to get buy-in from the whole community. There are local examples of this more inclusive approach being effective (a discussion thread about this can be found on the Health Promoting Schools website). It's not sexy, it doesn't provide a springboard for politicians to get publicity, but it works.

But the Minister goes on! 'This new programme will reach 24,000 children and their families and will go a long way to helping those low-income families.' 

How on earth does a nit treatment that barely works 'go a long way' toward helping low-income families? What a load of twaddle. Nearly a fifth of us think poverty and inequality are important. What we have here is lousy politics.