Town shocked by a priest's revelations

Aids controversy in Ireland: Community stunned as cleric tells of HIV outbreak caused by woman taking 'revenge on society'
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The Independent Online
When Father Michael Kennedy finally met health officials in an emergency meeting yesterday afternoon, he repeated his claim that an HIV-infected woman had slept with up to 80 men in "revenge on society".

Responding to pleas from the South Eastern Health Board to get in touch, he told them five people known to him were HIV-positive after tests in the UK. Yet as the seaside town of Dungarvan in Co Waterford struggled to come to terms with the priest's disclosure, Aids experts cast doubts on the claim that the men could have all contracted the virus from her.

Dr James Walsh, formerly Ireland's national Aids co- ordinator, said a woman might have to have sex several hundred times with a man to pass on the disease through vaginal intercourse. It was "possible but unlikely" that the five were the unlucky exception.

The day had begun in confusion as health officials expressed amazement at the story of a one-woman HIV outbreak. Father Kennedy, a member of the America's Kennedy political clan, had warned of the woman at mass on Sunday on behalf of parents of an infected youth who had wanted to alert others.

He said five men aged 20 to 28 had tested positive and another 20 are to undergo tests in Britain where they had gone to ensure confidentiality and prevent any possible embarrassment within the community. The priest said he was trying to trace dozens more who encountered the woman in pubs and clubs in Cork and Youghal, Co Cork, Clonnel and Thurles in Co Tipperary, and Kilkenny, Co Kilkenny, and Dungarvan and Waterford in Co Waterford between November last year and March.

The warning immediately plunged the 7,000-population town into fear and residents gathered in huddles yesterday to discuss the latest rumours about the 25-year-old woman who grew up in Britain but returned to visit relatives in her native Dungarvan. Local young people stress Dungarvan is no rural backwater living in innocent isolation. An industrial town of 7,000, it has big employers in Waterford Glass and pharmaceutical and food plants. Its pubs and night clubs are well equipped with condom machines; safe-sex programmes are taught in schools.

Father Kennedy commands respect and most parishioners said he was unlikely to make wild claims.

Father Kennedy's priest, Canon Gregory Power, and Dr William Lee, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, summoned the 40-year-old curate to discuss the matter before announcing that the priest would co-operate with the authorities.

Dr Lee said: "The health board has expertise and resources necessary for the protection of public health and for determining, investigating and treating HIV. He has been concerned to preserve the privacy of any persons who may be involved. I am satisfied that this important element will be properly and adequately protected by doctors and other health board personnel."

Health minister Michael Noonan said there were no significant increases in HIV rates in sexually-transmitted disease clinics in Waterford, Cork and Dublin. It had no evidence to confirm or discount the priest's claims and stressed all the men could have been tested and counselled in confidence.

In Dungarvan, Mrs Nuala Ryan, chair of the urban district council, said inhabitants were shocked."It is a very quiet town. Nothing like this has ever happened before, but I think Father Kennedy was correct in bringing it to the notice of the people," she said. "People always think it couldn't happen here. That's why they're so shocked. You think it's in the big cities.

Up until the end of March this year, there were 463 reported cases of Aids in the Republic of Ireland, of whom 231 have died. There were 1,553 reported cases of HIV. The main problem is intravenous drug-users.

This compares with a total of 11,051 cases of Aids in the UK up to the end of June this year and a cumulative total of 24,502 reports of HIV infection. Gay men form the largest problem group.