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An HIV-positive Muppet comes to South Africa

Editor's Note: Even though news sources are reporting that the HIV Muppet will appear on US Sesame Street this is not the case. Sesame Workshop confirmed on July 12, "There are no current plans to introduce an HIV Positive Muppet on Sesame Street in the States or anywhere other than in South Africa. This idea came from our South African broadcast partner isolating a major problem for children in that country."

Courtesy of the Washington Post
July 11, 2002

Episodes of "Sesame Street" may soon be brought to you by the letters H, I and V.

Sesame Workshop, the organization that produces the long-running children's show, says it will introduce an HIV-positive Muppet character to the cast of its South African program this fall and is discussing a similar move in the United States.

The South African character hasn't been named or designed yet, but it likely will be a 5-year-old female and a "monster Muppet" like Grover or Elmo, the least human-like of the "Sesame" cast, said Joel Schneider, vice president of Sesame Workshop, which is based in New York.

"We know that she'll be lively, alert, friendly, outgoing and HIV-positive," said Schneider, who spoke yesterday from Barcelona, where he announced the character to delegates attending the 14th International AIDS Conference. "She'll be healthy, not sickly." HIV -- human immunodeficiency virus -- is the virus that can lead to AIDS.

The goal is to help "de-stigmatize" the disease, promote discussion about it and "model positive behavior" toward an afflicted person among viewers of the program, who typically are age 3 to 7, he said. "We want to show children that it's okay to touch [an HIV-positive person], okay to hug, that a person can still be a constructive part of the community."

The "back story" about how the character contracted HIV is still under discussion, but it likely will involve a story line about a blood transfusion or transmission through childbirth, Schneider said. There will be no discussion of unsafe sexual practices or intravenous drug use, the two foremost means of transmission.

In addition to introducing preschool viewers to their ABCs, "Sesame Street" has offered a variety of social messages and images since its debut in 1969. Its regular characters include adults and children of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, and it has featured characters and guest stars with various disabilities.

The addition of an HIV-positive Muppet on South Africa's "Takalani Sesame" -- takalani means "be happy" in the Tshivenda language -- follows the devastating spread of the disease throughout southern Africa. South Africa has the most HIV-infected people of any nation in the world: Since 1996, the number of cases has doubled to more than 4 million, or 1 in 10 people, according to estimates by international health agencies.

AIDS activists have been sharply critical of the South African government's sluggish response to the pandemic. President Thabo Mbeki has come under fire for his views, such as his suggestion that widely used anti-AIDS drugs are "poison." He also has said that AIDS might not even be caused by HIV.

But Schneider said the new character was developed in partnership with the South African Department of Education and the state-controlled South African Broadcasting Corp., which airs "Takalani Sesame" three times a day.

The program is underwritten by a South African insurance company, Sanlam Life, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The HIV-positive character may become part of other national versions of the program (there are 20 currently) and could be used as a focal point to discuss other afflictions, such as malaria, tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases that are mass killers in many countries, Schneider said.


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