Johanna Kershaw with her pregnant chihuahua Cleo: 'The authorities should have a support system in place for swine flu sufferers'

A woman with swine flu says victims of the virus are treated like lepers, quarantined in their own homes and denied human contact and practical help.

Johanna Kershaw, who moved from Cork to south Belfast seven years ago, who has had swine flu for three weeks, said sufferers endure intense loneliness and can be left to starve because they aren't allowed out of the house to buy groceries.

Speaking from the window of her Palestine Street home, Kershaw told the Sunday Tribune: "The health authorities are failing victims. When I was diagnosed, a chemist shoved Tamiflu through my letterbox, then bolted out the gate like a bat out of hell. He couldn't get away fast enough.

"You're made to feel like a leper. I live alone and if friends hadn't been kind enough to leave food parcels for me in the front garden, I'd have starved.

"It's like being under house arrest. I completely understand that I have to stay indoors to stop the disease spreading. But there should be some system in place to get food delivered to people like me and to ensure our other basic needs are met."

Kershaw lost all contact with the outside world for three days when she ran out of credit for her pay-as-you-go mobile phone. "It was very frightening as I have no landline. Had my condition deteriorated, I wouldn't even have been able to phone the doctor," she said.

Darina Calpin (18) from Sligo became the Republic's first swine flu fatality on Friday. She had an underlying health condition. A previously healthy British soldier from the North died of swine flu last week. The virus has killed 36 people in Britain, and 1,154 worldwide.

Kershaw (64) said swine flu devastates the lives of those who live alone: "I use a top-up card for my electricity and it ran out. I was left without electricity for a day – no lights, no TV or radio, no cooker or kettle. I had to light candles and eat cold food.

"The next day, I put money in a plastic bag and left it outside the front door for a friend to collect and buy credit for my electricity card...

"But what would happen an elderly person in an isolated rural area who had no friends or family?

"My friends have been great but I don't want to be a nuisance to them. The authorities should have a support system in place for swine flu sufferers," she said.

"The loss of personal independence has been dreadful. State support should be available to victims who need it. Instead, I've been reliant on the goodwill of others."

Kershaw had to ask friends to take four of her five chihuahuas. "I wasn't allowed out of the house to walk them, and I wouldn't have had the energy anyway. It broke my heart to send the dogs away. But I kept Cleo because she's pregnant and due to have her pups next week."

Kershaw, who has a long-term illness which has weakened her immune system, doesn't know how she caught swine flu. "As well as feeling physically awful, the past three weeks have been so boring. I'm not well enough to concentrate on reading books and somebody with swine flu can hardly walk into Xtra-vision to rent DVDs," she said.

"Simple everyday activities are impossible. A delivery man arrived with a parcel for me. I opened the window and he asked me to come out and sign for it. I told him I'd swine flu. He just threw the parcel in the window and drove off. It's so embarrassing. You feel like you're unclean."

Kershaw developed flu-like symptoms three weeks ago but was initially diagnosed as having a chest infection. A week later, she felt worse and contacted her doctor. "I've never felt so ill in my life. I had an awful cough and I was bringing up green mucus.

"I was exhausted and all my joints ached. I was vomiting and I was so dizzy I fell down the stairs. There's a belief that swine flu isn't much worse than the ordinary flu, that it's quite mild. I want to warn people that's not always the case. I don't even have the energy to brush my teeth."

Tamiflu eased, but didn't eradicate, all the symptoms she said. She also claimed it gave her nightmares and left a "terrible taste" in her mouth. But the loneliness of quarantine was worse than her physical symptoms: "It has made me very depressed. I'm starting to feel better now but when the illness was at its worst, I was so scared. I'd be sitting on my own at night watching the news on TV that more people had died from swine flu, and I knew I was in the high-risk category.

"I'd start crying and not be able to stop because I was terrified. The doctor had given me a helpline phone number but it was an automated service. I didn't want to hear a recorded voice, I wanted to be able to speak to a human being to discuss my symptoms and be reassured."

Kershaw hopes she will soon recover. But she said the most worrying aspect was that her doctor had told her she could catch swine flu again: "Having it once doesn't prevent it recurring. That's what is really frightening."