Is Illness on Dean Trail Psychosomatic Malady?

The constant wheezing, sneezing and coughing are familiar sounds to the sickly press corps given the ironic job of having to follow around a doctor-turned-politician, Howard Dean (search), as he continues his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

As many as six members at a time from the traveling media covering Dean are or have been sick in the last two months. Hacking away, with the most courteous among the media trying to time coughs to the applause lines in Dean’s stump speeches, members of the press board buses and planes and meet in motel lobbies in order to exchange over-the-counter medications with their ailing colleagues.

Each morning as we pile onto the bus, the red noses, puffy eyes and general pallor indicate the journalists whose symptoms are the worst on any given day. Fox News producer Katie Sargent, who is filling in for me on the Dean tour while I get a prescription for antibiotic relief, said she was greeted on the Dean bus with: “Welcome to the petri dish.”

The ongoing infirmities began with Dean himself, who self-diagnosed bronchitis (search) just before the Iowa caucuses. For days, the doctor coughed and croaked his way through speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

At one town hall meeting, a man from the audience — who admitted he was no doctor, but rather a local broadcaster — recommended that Dean drink hot water with lemon and honey and suggested that the former Vermont governor speak from his diaphragm to preserve his voice. Dean tried it out to comical effects. 

Dean has shaken the cold without the aid of antibiotics. Asked how he had done it, Dean smiled and said supporters on the rope lines at his events had been pressing cough drops of every kind into his hands, among them, slippery elm (search), an herbal remedy whose taste Dean likened to the bottom of his shoe.

Some may wonder whether the collective condition of the Dean press corps is the psychosomatic (search) result of having to trail a candidate whose campaign appears to be suffering its own set of maladies, but it's not so. The other campaigns are also contaminated with their shares of sickness, and the other candidates have not been immune.

Wesley Clark (search) fought a crippling bout of laryngitis in New Hampshire, weeks after he announced his candidacy. His schedule of speeches turned into a whispering tour, with notes scribbled to supporters. In the last couple of days, John Edwards (search) has been fighting his own case of bronchitis, but at least his outlook is sunny, thanks to his double-digit win in South Carolina last Tuesday. 

Sargent, who is already on the mend from a bout with bronchitis, said she was fine in the early weeks of her tour with Dick Gephardt’s (search) campaign until a “germ-carrying, hacking, coughing, sniffling Reuters reporter showed up and managed to sit behind me on every plane and bus we took.” 

After Gephardt dropped out of the race, Sargent was dispatched to cover the Clark campaign. But it was too late. She had already been infected with what she called CARS -- campaign acute respiratory syndrome.

Sargent's full-blown bronchitis is slowly disappearing. Or it has turned its ugly back toward the wire service. A Reuters reporter on the Clark campaign recently sent notice to Sargent that he had come down with "her" cold.

Sargent's reply: “It’s Reuters’ cold. I’m just giving it back.” 

Dr. David Rosenberg, an emergency room physician at Georgetown University Hospital (search), suggested that the close proximity in which the press corps spends its time, along with the high stress levels, long waking hours and irregular mealtimes, all make for a “unique opportunity to get a lot of infections” — in other words, germ heaven.

But, Rosenberg added, “There is no campaignitis,” just the evil upper respiratory infection winter brings.

The press covering John Kerry’s (search) campaign has remained remarkably healthy, according to Fox News producer Catherine Loper, though the campaign staff hasn’t been so lucky.

Kerry Press Secretary Stephanie Cutter was recently sick, and one of the advance people caught a virus, especially unfortunate since the advance person's job is to shout at the press and herd them from campaign stop to campaign stop.

The health of Kerry, the last candidate standing who was taken down by cold only for an afternoon, has raised the question of whether being ahead of the field offers an immunity boost.

Rosenberg said he doubts it. No study has yet shown that “feeling good about yourself is protection against infection,” he said. 

So, from that comes my advice to Kerry: Be careful, this cold may be headed your way.