Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Seasonal Influenza: The Ethics of Staying Home

By Sarah Ludwig

Greg is a sophomore university student, living in the dorms on campus. He spent all weekend working on his part of a group presentation for Monday morning. By the time he e-mailed his section to his group, his throat was scratchy and he had a headache, but he hoped that a good night's sleep would fix the problem. Unfortunately, when he woke up, he had gotten much worse. He had a fever over 100 degrees, a headache, and a severely sore throat. He knew that the flu had been going around the dorms; a couple of the women on the floor above Greg had even been hospitalized due to their high fevers. The most common first symptom of this flu outbreak had been a cough, but Greg still suspected that he had caught a case of the flu.

Greg has to decide whether to go and give his presentation anyway or stay at home. The presentation is a culmination of a lot of work this quarter and is accordingly worth a large portion of his overall grade. His professor has a very strict policy for presentations; all group members must be present, and if you miss the presentation day, your group will lose a letter grade for each day the presentation is late. Greg needs a good grade in this class to maintain his GPA; otherwise he will lose his scholarships. Greg could drop the class and allow his group to present without him, but the class won't be offered again until next year, and it is a prerequisite for all the other courses in his major. Missing this presentation could put Greg behind by an entire year.

On the other hand, Greg doesn't want to get anyone else sick. He is a public health major and took a class on infectious diseases last quarter, and he is now part of the peer-educator class, so he knows that the student health center would recommend that he stay home. He also knows his friend Alison is in that class, and that she has severe asthma, so the flu could be life-threatening for her. He doesn't know if she was able to get a vaccine this year or not, and there may be other students like her in the class that would be put seriously at-risk by exposure to the influenza virus. Students who live at home might pass the virus on to their families, which may include grandparents and other high-risk groups. By going to class, Greg may be putting unknown others at risk.

Greg's roommate, Todd, tells him that he should just go anyway, because it's not Greg's fault that the professor has such a strict policy. Todd argues that Greg's only responsibility should be to himself, getting the good grade, and maintaining his scholarships. Greg really doesn't want to infect anyone, but he doesn't want to let his group members down either. He can't afford to get a bad grade, but he feels so sick he can barely get out of bed.

Santa Clara University's Cowell Health Center recommends that anyone with a fever over 100 degrees and flu-like symptoms stay home and self-isolate. During the 2009 H1N1 flu epidemic, the university provided a limited number of isolation rooms for students who lived on campus with a roommate. 1

  1. Does Greg have a moral obligation to stay home?
  2. How should Greg balance his responsibility to himself with his responsibility towards Alison? Towards other people?
  3. Would his obligations be different if he had something other than the flu?
  4. What values play into Greg's decision?

Resources:

Ethical Issues in Dealing With Seasonal Influenza
Comments on The Ethics of Staying Home
Santa Clara University policy during the 2009 epidemic

Sarah Ludwig created these case studies on seasonal influenza when she was a senior at Santa Clara University as her Honzel Fellowship project at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

June 2012
1. Robinson, Peggie. "H1N1 Flu Updates." Cowell Student Health Center. Santa Clara University http://www.scu.edu/cshc/blog/.