An HIV-Positive Muppet
by Josh Grossberg
Jul 12, 2002, 11:00 AM PT

An HIV-positive Muppet is moving into Sesame Street.

The character, who will be a five-year-old female, will be unveiled this September on the South African version of the show, called Takalani Sesame. The Muppet is still being designed and doesn't yet have a name or a color. She will interact with the show's other Muppets, including Elmo, in an attempt to overcome the myths that surround HIV and AIDS in a country where more than 10 percent of the population is infected.

The new addition to the Muppet roster was announced this week at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona by Sesame Street Workshop's vice president and senior adviser, Joel Schneider.

"This character will be fully a part of the community," Schneider tells Reuters. "She will have high self-esteem. Women are often stigmatized about HIV and we are providing a good role model as to how to deal with one's situation and how to interact with the community."

Although scripts are still being hammered out, officials at the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which airs the program, have a general idea of how the character will behave.

"It will have, in a childlike manner, open discussions about sexuality, HIV and AIDS, and death and dying," the broadcaster's Yvonne Kgame tells the Associated Press. "The reality is that children as young as they are affected very closely by HIV/AIDS. They experience death and dying of people very close to them."

South Africa has the world's largest population infected by HIV, with more than 4.7 million people living with the virus.

The HIV-educational outreach was initiated by Sesame Street in cooperation with South Africa's Department of Education, the South African Broadcasting Corporation and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"Sesame Street works with all of its partners to develop content specific to that country and that's what we do broadcasters all over the world," says Sesame Street Workshop spokeswoman Beatrice Chow.

And for those parents worried that the children's show may be crossing the line into sex ed, Schneider says the subject matter would be handled like all serious topics with appropriate delicacy.

"Not every show will deal explicitly with HIV/AIDS," he tells Reuters. "We want to show that here is an HIV-positive member of our community who you can touch and interact with. We will be very careful to fashion our messages so they are appropriate to the age group. What do I do when I cut my finger? What do I do when you cut your finger? That sort of thing."

The show is no stranger to difficult themes, having taken on school-bullying, death and even the September 11 tragedy.

Sesame Street, which is broadcast in 70 countries, has no immediate plans to debut the character for American viewers. But it's possible she could turn up on other international editions of the show where AIDS education is needed.