The students who cried swine flu

As universities urge sick students to stay away, some undergrads are faking H1N1

Thanks to H1N1, Section 16.8 of Dalhousie University’s Academic Regulations, regarding medical certificates in the case of illness  (required to miss classes and assignments with no penalty incurred) has been modified. Since September, anyone with “flu-like symptoms” has been encouraged to stay far, far away from campus, no questions asked. It seems for now swine flu has killed the sick note at Dal. And other universities across the country have put similar policies into effect.

At first it seemed like a pure Godsend. Free to sign their own notes, students quickly expanded the definition of flu-like symptoms to include smoker’s cough, hangovers and an insatiable appetite for TLC’s Cake Boss. One Dal philosophy major has had the virus twice—once in Logic and once in Deduction—and is planning to contract it again before her Epistemology exam. “It’s supposed to come in waves,” she says.

Or not.  Recently the University of Western Ontario started requiring infected students to enter their names into an online database, which could possibly red-flag multiple bouts of the flu.  For students a new question loomed:  how many times could they cry swine flu; and if they did malinger, what happened if they got the real thing?

Strangely, not much. John Doersken, vice provost in academic programs and students at UWO, maintains detecting fakes was never the reason for the database. “The system is in place so that we can provide our public health unit with data on how serious the pandemic is. We can tell on any given day how many students are away on influenza like illnesses.” Or at least, how many claim to be. There’s no telling, admits Doersken, how many students enter their names under false pretences.

And despite acknowledging that some students are likely using the pandemic for their own benefit, Susan Spence Wach, associate vice-president of academic programs at Dal, says their revised no-sick-note policy will remain in effect for now.  “Our main concern is with flu prevention and the care of our student population.” In other words, having some people take advantage of the revised policy is better than what would occur if the policy were left unchanged.  “People with flu-like symptoms,” says Spence Wach, “should not be going out to get sick notes. They should be at home.”

Though no official system is in place, data is also being collected at Dal, says Spence Wach: “On a weekly basis I get reports on student illness; only numbers, never names.”

So while it looks like students jumping on the H1N1 wagon won’t be facing any thorny disciplinary problems, they’re probably the contributing factors in some erroneous public health research—just another chapter in the swine flu fiasco. “For the most part, students aren’t abusing it,” says one Western undergrad, who prefers to remain anonymous.  “However, I have heard of some students who are.  Namely, myself and my roommates.”