EUGENE, Ore. --- A body louse causes itchy, scratchy skin and can make for a lousy day.
"Sometimes you can literally see them jumping off of the person," said Eugene Police Officer Jim McBride. "They're becoming a really big problem."
"We're seeing a lot more body lice among the homeless here in Eugene," said McBride. "I thought it was something that returned every winter, but [other officers] are saying that this is the worst they've ever seen it."
Body lice is a different species than head or pubic lice. Body lice lay eggs in damp, unwashed clothing or bedding. While they primarily live in clothing, the parasites travel to the body five times a day to feed on human blood.
Those who work with the homeless said body lice are spreading like wildfire because many homeless do not have dry clothing, do not have access to laundry services and share clothing and bedding with each other.
"You see them huddled together when it's cold," said Randy Ellis from Eugene Police. "They're sharing a blanket and sharing a jacket. What else can they do?"
But McBride said body lice can spread into Eugene police patrol cars when they arrest a homeless person. The parasites can also spread into rehabilitation clinics - and into the jail.
McBride said on occasion, police have to cite and release a person rather than taking them to the jail because of lice infestation.
"It's frustrating because as a police officer I see it expanding to the general public," said McBride.
Lane County Public Health (LCPH) declined an interview request for this story. A LCPH nurse told KVAL News that the department is not responsible for controlling lice because it is "just a nuisance" and that it "does not pose a threat to public health."
Studies have found that body lice can spread bacteria and lead to disease. According to a study conducted by the California Department of Public Health, body lice live on human blood. The study reports that certain bacteria are transmitted through body lice feces that are scratched into the skin, and that bacteria can cause illness among those with weak immune systems such as those with HIV/AIDS.
Whitebird's Richard Ellis said the homeless are not to blame for the outbreak of lice. Ellis said many homeless simply do not have access to dry bedding or even a shower which could help cleanse the body of lice.
Ellis also said money is also to blame. He said body lice can be controlled through medications but that those medications are not being made available to the homeless.
"Just because these are the people at the bottom of the food chain doesn't man that they're not important," said Ellis.
"Individuals don't start providing help until it becomes a crisis," said Ellis. "It shouldn't even become a crisis in the first place."