It's Elementary, Anthrax is Not Contagious


I like detective stories and detective work. That's why I love infectious diseases so much. Sherlock Holmes is probably the most famous literary detective archetype of all time and I enjoy reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's (who, by the way, was a physician) tales of his and Dr. Watson's adventures.

In that same vein, I enjoy watching the CBS program Elementary which portrays a modern day NYC-set version of Holmes and Dr. Watson. Last week's episode, which I was especially looking forward to, was focused on a death of a man from anthrax and the subsequent threat of its use in a mass casualty setting. 

One glaring factual inaccuracy, however, detracted from my viewing pleasure: on two occasions anthrax was mentioned in connection with quarantine. 

Quarantine, a measure that is scarcely used, is the exclusive province of communicable (i.e. contagious) diseases.

Anthrax is not contagious and the mistaken belief by the public that it is can pose problems during actual events, hampering response and needlessly causing unwarranted panic.

For example, as a medical student doing an ER rotation in New York City during October 2001, at the height of the Amerithrax attacks, I was "locked" down in an ED in which someone exposed to white powder presented. Predictably, no one would believe the medical student (albeit one that was a burgeoning ID physician) that anthrax was not communicable.

Anthrax does a lot of bad things to people but it doesn't spread between them.