Sesame Street to introduce HIV-positive character

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 humanlike 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 from Barcelona, where he announced the character to delegates attending this week's 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 ages 3 to 7, he said. "We want to show children that it's OK to touch (an HIV-positive person), OK 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 1969 debut. 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.


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