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Swine flu victims shunned by contagion fears of panicked neighborhoods

MOISES Bonilla spent five days struggling to breathe in a hospital ward he shared with others suspected of having swine flu. He watched the woman in the bed next to him die.

Bonilla lived to tell his story,a bold choice for swine flu survivors in Mexico where neighbors have shunned the sick out of fear of contagion even as the government protests foreign quarantines of its citizens. Most of the country's more than 1,000 confirmed survivors have remained anonymous.

"We are discriminating against each other in Mexico. Imagine how it must be in other countries," said Bonilla, an unemployed maintenance worker. He wore a white surgical mask inside the small two-bedroom apartment where he lives with his wife, two adult daughters and two grandchildren.

Eight days after leaving the hospital, he was all but recovered this week but had yet to venture out except for checkups at his local public clinic.

He decided to talk about his story because some Mexicans were dismissing the epidemic as a government hoax. And after he talked with journalists some neighbors became alarmed and a government physician had to come to assure them he was no longer contagious.

Even healthy Mexicans have been the target of fear: some Acapulco residents hurled stones last week at cars with Mexico City license plates, angry that anyone from the epicenter of the outbreak had ventured to their town.

Julian Sosa, a 30-year-old cardiology student, was also startled by others' reactions. Sosa said he spent five days at home taking Tamiflu for swine flu symptoms. He was miserable: he could barely open his eyes and he felt like someone was beating him up. And he was oblivious to what was going on in the rest of Mexico City.

He spent his first day outside last Tuesday, happily walking through a park with his girlfriend. That night, he finally turned on the radio and for the first time heard the reports of Mexicans complaining about mistreatment and discrimination both abroad and at home.

"I did feel a little resentful," Sosa said. "To think that people who once treated you well could shun you."

Several of Bonilla's neighbors were angry when they found out about his illness through newspapers and the Internet. They kept asking if they were safe with him around. They wondered if they could still buy snacks and drinks from the kiosk that his wife and mother-in-law run in their gritty, sprawling neighborhood of Iztapalapa.

Bonilla's wife, Blanca Estela Artos, finally persuaded the epidemiologist at a local government-run health center to give a talk at the couple's apartment building. A small crowd gathered around Dr Eberardo Ayala in a dingy courtyard, some leaning over the railings of a cracked concrete stairwell. Artos wore a mask, but her husband stayed inside.

Ayala tried to explain that Bonilla was no longer contagious while encouraging everyone to keep taking precautions while the epidemic lasts.

"He has been completely cured," Ayala said through his surgical mask. "That means Moises' situation is not a problem. The problem is if you don't take sanitary precautions like washing your hands."

Some frowned in confusion. "If we don't get near Moises can we still get sick?" asked Maria Socorro, a homemaker.

"Mr Moises does not present any threat to you," Ayala repeated patiently. But passions soon ran high.

One woman complained Artos wouldn't answer her questions about Bonilla. Another woman countered it was unfair for the neighborhood to stay away from the family's kiosk.

"We're not trying to discriminate! We just want information!" yelled a third woman in sweats and hot pink T-shirt. Artos finally spoke up, explaining that the family never kept anything secret from anyone but that she was trying to be careful and not give misleading information.

For one thing, she said, the family still doesn't know that Bonilla's illness was swine flu. He was tested for the H1N1 virus and given Tamiflu, but results are pending.

"I'm not acting irresponsibly," she said. "And if I had wanted to keep my husband hidden in the house, do you think we would have spoken to the newspapers?"

The doctor's assurances eventually calmed everyone down.

Back in his apartment, Bonilla tried to focus less on his neighbors than on picking up his life. The 46-year-old is still in shock after coming so near death. He said he has always felt healthy, although during his hospital stay doctors told him he had diabetes.

He spent the next two days in intensive care, isolated along with five other people showing symptoms of swine flu, including three hooked up to ventilators. One of them, the woman in the bed next to Bonilla, died.

"I kept thinking, when it is going to be my turn?" he said.

Bonilla was moved the next day to another isolation room, joining a metal worker and a bricklayer also recovering from severe pneumonia. He never found out what happened to the other two patients on ventilators.

"I just really want to live my life right now. I'm grateful to be telling this story," he said.


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