A Milder Case of Anthrax
First It Was in the Mail, Now It's on the Clothes
The sign outside the gift shop at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda reads: "Got Anthrax?"
Below that: "NIH does."
What the NIH has, heaped on a shelf just inside the store, are anthrax neckties. Silk neckwear, available in red or gray at $35 per tie, printed with a repeating design of anthrax spores as they appear magnified under a microscope.
But not for long. The ties are so hot at NIH this year that they're flying off the shelves, said Homaira Hamid, vice president of store operations. Hamid, who was forced to back-order the items, stood in her cramped office midway through the hectic holiday shopping season and nodded at the Post-it notes spotting her desktop. Scrawled messages pleading, "1 red anthrax tie. PLEASE."
"We can't keep them in stock, " Hamid said.
A former dentist peddles the anthrax ties -- and anthrax boxer shorts and scarves -- through his Encino, Calif., company, Infectious Awareables, founded in 1997 to spread awareness of infectious diseases.
The biologically inspired clothing, stocked in science museums and sold at conferences for scientists and health professionals, features an assortment of the most-feared diseases: plague, ebola, AIDS.
Roger Freeman, the former dentist and company president, said he began stocking anthrax designs two years ago and did not set out to capitalize on this year's anthrax scare. But this fall, as orders poured into his Internet site, www.iawareables.com, he did what any entrepreneur would do -- he stepped up production.
"When anthrax hit, all [of a] sudden the lights started to go off. Our Web site went crazy. People wanted these ties," Freeman said. "I don't feel I have to defend something that brings awareness. We're talking about something that's really, really serious, yet we do it sort of tongue-in-cheek."
A few weeks before Christmas, anthrax neckties were en route to hospitals, public health departments, universities and research laboratories across the country, Freeman said. Awaiting them were a bevy of microbiologists, bioterrorism response planners and doctors, scientists and researchers of every stripe.
A public health department in Florida bought a bunch as gifts.
"It's a who's who of health care," Freeman said. "Microbiology, that's one of our big niches. These people get it because they have to get it. It's their life."
Cell biologist Mark Dudley, who researches cancer vaccines at NIH, spotted the "Got Anthrax?" sign and immediately ordered a couple of neckties as gifts.
"It's a good-looking tie and a great conversation starter," Dudley said.
On his recipient list are a brother-in-law and an old college friend, neither of whom work in the field. Dudley said they will get the joke.
Accessorizing with a silk version of anthrax spores, some buyers said, is a sort of microbial badge of honor. It's a way to let colleagues -- and anyone else able to identify the spores -- know what it is that they work on all day.
"It's a way of stating that this is a part of what you are, is working with these things," said Samia Hurst, an NIH physician who bought an anthrax tie for a colleague. "If you're working with children, you may have a cartoon on your tie; and if you're working with infectious diseases, you will have diseases."
Some buyers reported that they were overjoyed to find products that put their largely hidden world on public display.
Linda Bourque, a public health professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said she tried to persuade colleagues at the school's Center for Public Health and Disasters to use the anthrax ties as the background for this year's Christmas cards.
The colleagues didn't go for it.
But when Bourque gave several friends the ties and scarves as gifts, they were delighted, she said.
"One of them," Bourque said, "commented that his wife had always been trying to find him a tie that had one of these things on it."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2001; Page B01