An HIV-positive character will soon join the cast of the long-running children’s program Sesame street.
With muppets like these, who needs teachers? Five-year-olds could soon be able to teach their parents a thing or two about AIDS.
In one of the more unusual statements to come out of the fourteenth international conference on AIDS in Barcelona, which ended on Friday, the vice-president of Sesame Workshop, Joel Schneider, announced that a character would be introduced in its South African program later in the year who will be HIV positive.
Any colour, as long as it’s female
Schneider said the South African character hadn’t been named or designed yet, but it was likely to be a five-year-old girl.
"She’ll be lively, alert, friendly, outgoing and HIV-positive," Schneider said on Thursday in Barcelona.
"She will have high self-esteem. Women are often stigamised 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."
Schneider says this is the main aim of having an HIV positive member on the famous Muppet team. He hopes that it will encourage "model positive behaviour" towards people with HIV and AIDS among viewers of the program, who are mostly between three and seven years old.
"We want to show children that it’s okay to touch, okay to hug, that a person can still be a constructive part of the community."
Members of the cast of Sesame Street surround UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
Not every Takalani Sesame show (Takalani means ‘be happy’ in the Tshivenda language) will deal explicitly with HIV/AIDS. The HIV-positive character’s real world contemporaries who watch the program will not be seeing explicit sex or intravenous drug use. Instead the messages will be appropriate, Schneider says. "What do I do when I cut my finger? What do I do when I cut your finger? That sort of thing."
Spokesperson for the Sesame Street Workshop in New York Beatrice Chow says Takalani Sesame will be the first show of its kind designed for pre-schoolers. South Africa already has one children’s program with an HIV-positive character.
It seems there’s at least one good reason to start while you’re young – the message doesn’t seem to be getting through to a lot of older children. While adolescence is the time when most people become sexually active, a UN study released this month has found that most young people between 15 and 24 have no idea how HIV is transmitted or how to protect themselves from the disease.
South Africa lagging on AIDS prevention
South Africa has more HIV-infected people than any other country. Health agencies estimate that since 1996, the number of cases has doubled to more than 4 million, or 1 in 10 people. Young women are consistently found to have higher rates of infection than men in the same age group.
The former South African President, Nelson Mandela, on Friday joined other world leaders in urging campaigners not to lose heart in their war against the AIDS pandemic. At the close of the conference, Mandela gave a speech in which he referred to his long struggle against apartheid "often against odds that were considered insurmountable".
A chilling reminder
The six-day conference in Barcelona attended by 15,000 health professionals and NGOs was the biggest ever international gathering on HIV/AIDS. UNAIDS said the conference made progress towards finding a solution to the pandemic.
But AIDS campaigners said the meeting was a chilling reminder of the work still to be done. They lamented that there was no cure or vaccine for the disease. Some grass-roots activists accused the weathy countries of the world of providing insufficient money and ensuring the cost of anti-AIDS drugs remained high.
The next International AIDS conference will take place in Bangkok in July 2004.