Aids shock for wild clubbers

Doncaster, South Yorkshire, has five times the average rate of HIV among heterosexuals. Esther Leach reports from a frightened town
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The Independent Online
ONCE it was famed for its railway industry and the St Leger race meetings, but today Doncaster is fast laying claim to the title of sleaziest town in Britain.

As if it were not enough to have hit the headlines over alleged financial hanky-panky within its council, last weekhealth officials revealed the number of HIV-positive heterosexuals in the town is five times the national average.

An urgent Aids alert went out after 10 heterosexuals, most of whom were women, had become infected during the past two years, following a decade of virtually no cases. All pub and clubgoers who have had unprotected intercourse in the past five years are being urged to take part in Britain's biggest sexually transmitted disease testing programme.

This latest revelation follows a series of arrests after allegations of corruption involving six of its councillors. Investigations are continuing.

But in the past year, while auditors and police have spent hours in the town's elegant Mansion House combing through files, the young citizens of Doncaster have been out on the town, risking their lives in a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure in the town's many clubs and pubs.

Health officials have linked the outbreak to Doncaster's notoriously wild pub and club scene and an almost complete disregard for practising safe sex.

"I am surprised the figure isn't higher," said Craig Woods, 23, a motorway maintenance worker and a regular at the Emporium, a pub in the centre of Doncaster where he meets most of the women he sleeps with.

"Last Saturday was the first time that I can remember a lass asked me to use a condom and I didn't have one. But we did it anyway. Using a condom is like getting into a bath with your socks on.

"When you've had seven pints on a Saturday night and you're rat-arsed you are not going to think about condoms. Most of the people I know behave this way. This HIV thing may change things for a while but I think people will go back to behaving the way they always have.

"It's funny, the first thing my mum said to me after the HIV scare was on the news was `get a test'. My father has told me to get tested. What's the helpline number?"

Jessica Leech, 17, had a test for HIV 18 months ago. "Do you think I should go for another test?" she asked. "I don't use a condom when I'm in a relationship but I've split up with my boyfriend and I don't know if he has been sleeping with someone else. I think a lot of women think they're safe because they are on the Pill. They don't worry about HIV as much as they worry about becoming pregnant. That's their biggest worry.

"Can I have that number for the helpline? I can pass it on to anyone who wants it. My mum wants me to get tested."

Tim, 23, standing next to her, said there has never been an Aids scare in Doncaster before and people haven't worried about it. "They don't think it can happen to them, but it can happen anywhere. I would have thought the numbers were higher the way people carry on. Unprotected casual sex is normal - it happens all the time."

Dr Ken Allen, a specialist in communicable disease in Doncaster, where 43 per cent the 300,000 population is aged between 20 and 29, said there was no single cause of the outbreak. It was essential, he said, that the sexual partners of any person with the HIV virus should be found and if necessary treated. So far 14 partners of one infected person have been traced in this outbreak.

"There is no evidence to establish without doubt that one person was the source of any of these infections. One person is connected with some of the 10 cases, but there are obviously others within the Doncaster population with an HIV infection," said Dr Allen.

"Anybody who was part of the Doncaster pub or club scene since 1993 who had casual sex should call our helpline for advice. Equally nobody today should be having casual sex without wearing a condom." So far 1,049 people have contacted the health authority's helpline.

Doncaster Council is sensitive to the impact the story has had on the town's reputation following so soon after the corruption scandal which became known as "Donnygate".

A spokeswoman said the council had received telephone calls from bewildered members of the public. The health scare, she said, was not being handled by the council, but they felt responsible for the image of Doncaster.

"It came as a surprise to them and to us. The callers told us they didn't like the headlines which made out that Doncaster was a den of wanton sex and debauchery. They were really offended by them.

"There is nothing we can do about the headlines, but our young people are not any different to other young people anywhere else. They are not the only ones to go to pubs and clubs or to have unprotected sex.

"Yes, the town has had some bad knocks. We have got to live with this, and the repercussions of Donnygate, but be positive about the future."

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