Cruel gossip fuelled Army HIV smear

The media were only too happy to believe false rumours about two women living near Catterick Camp, reports Esther Leach
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On Monday, 19-year-old Lindsey Griffiths was just another woman who lived close to the army base at Catterick, North Yorkshire. By yesterday she was having to make the results of a confidential HIV test public, because a vicious circle of gossip, started by an Army memo, had led reporters to her door.

The story began with the leaking of a restricted Army memo from the Deputy Commander of Catterick Garrison, Colonel Neil Donaldson, warning his 5,500 troops of a higher risk than usual of contracting Aids.

In a curiously-worded memo, he said that there were "females with liberal affections, particularly to soldiers, who are not adverse to indulging in casual sex, often unprotected".

The Army never named any individual woman as being involved. The media, however, through local nightclub and doorstep gossip, arrived at its own conclusions. The people of Catterick, a poorer`` part of a prosperous area of North Yorkshire, were only too happy to point the finger, and Lindsey Griffiths and her 19-year-old friend, Bonnie Clarke, fit the frame. Local health officials were puzzled. Health authority statistics show there are fewer than 10 women who are HIV positive in the North Yorkshire population of 740,000 adults, while 48 men are recorded as having the virus. A health authority spokesman said: "In health terms it has characteristics similar to an inner-city area. But there is no overwhelming problem with HIV that we know of. We are regarding the matter as an unsubstantiated rumour."

The origins of the memo are unclear. Army sources have claimed that "health professionals" had contacted the Army saying a number of women in the general area had contracted Aids and were HIV positive. Local health professionals say they first heard of the story when they read about in the tabloids. Meanwhile, other sources claim the initial tip-off to the Army came from a newspaper in the first place, leading to fears that the entire saga has been media-manufactured.

Having been named, Ms Griffiths, by now signed up exclusively to The Sun newspaper, decided to take an HIV test to end the rumours. "I'm getting sick of it," she said at the time. Ms Clarke, meanwhile, refused to be pressured into taking a test and has since fled her Colburn home.

"I feel so happy even though I believed in myself at the beginning," said Ms Griffiths after her results. "I have been to hell and back these last few days and I feel angry at the way I have been treated. I want the army to know that I am negative. I have got nothing and I want the world to know it. I want the press to repeat this and clear my name."

Ms Griffiths' solicitor, John McArdle, said he was demanding an apology from the Army and an acceptance from Colonel Donaldson that Ms Griffiths does not have the HIV virus. The Army said it never knew or speculated on the identity of the "females" involved.

Colonel Donaldson said the young soldiers had to be warned as a duty of care.

The Army has refused to disclose how many soldiers have been tested for HIV or if any have the virus, saying the information is confidential. For Ms Griffiths and Ms Clarke, confidentiality was never an option.