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In Mexico, 'We can't touch her anymore'

MEXICO CITY – Almost two weeks ago Paola Alquicira woke up, complaining to her husband of a scratchy throat. As the day progressed, the young housewife felt even worse, but went about her normal day.

She dragged herself to an exercise class, called her mom once or twice and tried to keep pace with her 2-year-old daughter. By nightfall Paola was running a fever, had muscle and joint pain, and a runny nose. Although it was tough with a small toddler, Paola, 23, opted to stay in bed the next day, hoping to shake "la gripe," Spanish for the flu.

VIDEO: Paola Alquicira's mother waits outside her hospital

Instead, over the next two days her fever spiked and before the week ended she was hospitalized after an X-ray showed acute pneumonia. Her husband sent his small daughter to stay with relatives outside of Mexico City so he could keep vigil at his wife's bedside.

"She just would not get any better," said her husband Enrique, explaining that the family was baffled by her condition.

Then last Thursday, he learned the reason why.

His government disclosed that the nation was in the grips of a dangerous epidemic, that a new strain of deadly swine flu had been detected in the country.

With the help of the U.S. Center for Disease Control, Mexican scientists announced the discovery of H1N1, a bizarre new mix of pig, bird and human flu virus now frightening people across the globe.

Suspected to be present in 17 of Mexico's 31 states, the virus has killed more than 150 people and sickened another 2,400 here, while fast spreading to other places in the world. Every day health authorities announce hundreds of more suspected cases.

H1N1's preferred target is particularly worrisome.

Not just the usually vulnerable – children, elderly and people with compromised immune systems – are at risk. But, young previously healthy adults like Paola Alquicira turn out to be in particular danger.

Acting on that finding, health authorities placed the young woman in quarantine in Mexico's National Institute of Respiratory Illness over the weekend. Shortly afterwards, she fell into a coma as her lungs continued to fill with fluid and she struggled to breath.

Paola's husband spends day and night standing on the sidewalk outside the hospital, silently pacing among half a dozen other families. He stoically waits for late afternoon when he is issued a special ID that allows him to walk past the armed police guarding all three hospital entrances. Once behind the concrete walls, Enrique is given 30 minutes to steal a glance at his wife and speak with her doctor. He and their young daughter seem to have been spared infection.

But the moment authorities added Paola Alquicira's name to their list of patients suspected to be infected with H1N1, her parents were barred from her side for their own protection.

"My daughter is in grave condition and we can only see her through the glass," said her mother Alejandra, who too stands in the quiet street, her emotions just partially hidden by the hospital mask covering her mouth.

"We can't touch her anymore."

Not even to say goodbye, if the unthinkable were to happen.

Click here for more on the swine flu crisis