A priest claims a woman has infected 80 men in an Irish village. Horror story or tall tale?
There have been terrifying reports of Aids Avengers before: homosexual men deliberately infecting partners with the HIV virus, motivated by twisted revenge or blind fury at their own diagnosis. There were reports of mad American dentists deliberately injecting patients with their own infected blood in some horror-film parody. But yesterday an Irish priest, courtesy of the tabloid press, gave us the first female version of the Aids Avenging monster.

According to Father Michael Kennedy, a promiscuous, tattooed, HIV-positive blonde has been marauding through Dungarvan, near Cork, like the Angel of Death, liberally spreading sexual favours among the village's young men and knowingly infecting up to 80 of them. The girl, 25, who had recently arrived in the village from London, is reported to be "demented" by her condition.

His revelation during a sermon to his flock that five young men have already tested HIV-positive and scores of others are waiting for test results has thrown the village into hysteria and turmoil, to say nothing of what it has done to the press pack that descended on the town yesterday seeking out the monster's victims.

Yesterday, medical experts dismissed the story as almost certainly impossible. Studies show that while the chances of contracting the virus through one or even several sexual encounters are extremely low, the risk is lessened still further when intercourse occurs between a female HIV carrier and a male partner, particularly if it is a one-night stand. Richard Smith, a consultant gynaecologist at London's Chelsea and Westminster Hospital who treats female HIV sufferers, said scientific facts made the story "highly improbable".

The myth of the the Aids Avenger was promoted by several celebrated cases in America - including the jailing of Alberto Gonzalez, for attempted murder by an Oregon Court, for deliberately spreading the virus to a number of women, and the similar conviction of Dwight Smallwood by a Maryland court for trying to rape a woman knowing he was HIV positive.

Yet Mr Smith said his experience of HIV sufferers' behaviour added to his doubts about the Dungarvan case. "I have never come across the phenomenon of Aids avenger in women and have only heard of it in men. And given that women are far less likely than men to transmit the virus, it hardly seems likely that anything like this number can have been infected."

His scepticism was shared by Dr Lorraine Sherr, psychology lecturer at the Royal Free Hospital, London. "When people become HIV positive they experience an overwhelming cacophony of emotion. Specific anger that leads to retribution would be extremely rare. To go out for vengeance is highly unlikely."

Aids campaigners and experts suggest that the storyline - diseased female city dweller brings damnation to innocent country boys, through a virus regarded by some as the vengeance of God - might say more about the priest than the woman or the army of young men allegedly affected. The first female avenger may be following in the tradition of Black Widows, killing after sex, and sirens luring fishermen on to rocks: there can have been no stronger sermon a priest could deliver on the dangers of sexual temptation.

Robin Gorna, health promotion officer with the Terrence Higgins Trust, said it was possible that some men had been infected by the girl, particularly if she was at a high state of infection, but the sheer numbers were incredible. "Men are between two and 20 times as likely to infect a woman as the other way round," she said. "This story is absolutely bizarre. Here we have fear of women and fear of Aids coming together. This probably says more about the priest's fantasies and fears than anything else.

"It reminds me of the adverts the Health Education Authority ran five years ago - criticised at the time - showing a gorgeous, vampish woman and asking: 'If this woman had Aids, what would she look like in five years' time?' You turned over and she was the same. The strapline said: 'Worrying, isn't it?'

"The idea of the Aids Avenger is an absolute fantasy. But it is fascinating the way Aids and HIV pulls together our greatest fears: sex and death, drugs and homosexuality. None of the Aids workers I know has encountered anyone who intentionally used HIV as a sexual weapon.

"I can't imagine what the priest's motivation is in attracting all the press attention to the town. It's evil. We have had people calling all morning asking us if we are treating this woman. There is irony in a priest behaving like this when the Catholic Church can be blamed for the spread of HIV in Ireland through its opposition to Aids and sex education."

Ms Gorna argues that when HIV sufferers have sex without a condom, that does not mean they are deliberately trying to spread the virus. Sexual attraction, she says, is essentially not governed by reason. "This story seems to show a lack of understanding of sex's intimacy and irrationality. Anyway, this involves a woman - she could not force men to have sex without a condom. What were these young men doing?"

For the case raises pointedly the question of the balance of responsibility in sexual encounters between HIV sufferers and unknowing partners. The issue caused a rift among Aids and HIV workers earlier this summer when a television programme, Public Eye: Sex in the Dark, interviewed a gay man who wanted his former partner prosecuted for infecting him. Opinion seemed polarised between those who argued that individuals are responsible for their own health and that HIV sufferers had no moral responsibility to tell partners of their condition, and those who said that was a terrible abdication of duty not to do so. Ms Gorna said yesterday that she took a middle line: the person with HIV had special responsibility for a partner and the partner also had responsibility for his or her own health.

Dr Sherr believes that a sexual partner has as much a moral duty to protect themselves as carriers have responsibility not to spread the disease. "Infection is never about one person, it's always about two," she said. "There is a reciprocal responsibility from both sides in the partnership."

She said she feared that the panic spread from the pulpit in Dungarvan marked a return to the notion of the disease as the "gay plague". "It's back to the bad old days of stigmatising carriers and blaming them for spreading the disease. It's feeding into that whole panic; the fear, blame and guilt. We're blaming the people rather than the virus. It's so counter- productive. It leads to people running away from home and dying lonely deaths because they can't tell people about it."

Simon Garfield, author of the prize-winning The End of Innocence, a history of Aids in Britain, said that the Aids Avenger popped up every so often in the media but was largely a mythical creature. The latest mutation, he said, "brings out men's fear of the power of women in sex. The Church has also used the virus to promote the nuclear family.

"There has always been the desire to create the idea of the bad Aids person. It stems from a need to apportion blame and to promote this classic line of the guilty person, who brought the illness on themselves, going on to infect the innocent."

While he believes that there have been HIV sufferers who have intentionally spread the virus, he argues that cases such as the Italian bank robbers who use their Aids as a weapon in their trade and criminals holding people up at HIV-infected syringe-point are freaks.

Britain's notorious alleged Aids Avenger, Roy Cornes, was portrayed as a monster. Mr Cornes, a haemophiliac, died last year at 26. It was claimed that he infected four women during sexual intercourse. Mr Garfield believes that he spread the virus among women through ignorance and irresponsibility rather than vicious intent.

If there was an Aids Avenger in Dungarvan it may well have been a similar story.