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Puppets Tackle a Tough Subject: HIV/AIDS

Youngsters -- and their parents -- in 130 countries watch and learn from versions of the children's television program Sesame Street. The show's trademark cast of cute, furry characters called "Muppets" playfully interacts with humans during clever lessons in reading and counting. But the shows sometimes tackle more serious topics. The South African show Takalani Sesame has taken on the sensitive issue of the continent's deadly HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Meet Kami -- a yellow, frizzy-haired puppet who's different from every other Muppet created in the nonprofit Sesame Workshop's 38 years of broadcasting:

"The other children at school don't want to play with me because I'm HIV positive," Kami tells her friends. "They say they don't want to touch me because they think I will make them sick."

But her friends are supportive. "Heh, heh, Kami," replies a scruffy comrade. "We are not scared to play with you because we know we cannot catch HIV just by being your friend."

Kami is a regular character on Takalani Sesame. Takalani means "be happy" in TshiVenda -- one of 11 official South African languages. Kami's name derives from the Tswana word for "acceptance." She and her pals often switch from English to other languages as they talk and play.

Kami was the featured attraction at a Capitol Hill forum in Washington, called to address the impact of HIV/AIDS on Africa's children. The little Muppet has been so successful at reducing the stigma and shame often tied to the disease that UNICEF, the United Nations' Children's Fund, has named her its "Champion for Children."

Minnesota congresswoman Betty McCollum told the gathering that until Kami and her playmates began openly discussing AIDS three years ago, the subject was almost taboo in sub-Saharan Africa. Ms. McCollum remembers a visit there on behalf of the Congressional Global Health Caucus, when she learned about a South African government program to pay the school fees of families who take in AIDS orphans.

"You had to put down that the child had AIDS," she said. "I talked to the Peace Corps volunteers there from the United States, and they said, 'It is truly amazing the number of funerals I went to where there's orphans of "car accidents," and there was no car involved.' The older children would tell their younger siblings, 'No, Mom and Dad didn't die of AIDS. Don't let anybody say that. They died of tuberculosis. Or they died in a car accident.'"

Rick Olson, an HIV team leader at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, noted that the world would spring into action if ten jumbo passenger jets fell from the sky each day. "That's nowhere near the number of people who are dying from HIV," he points out. "HIV is more like a silent emergency. It's happening, but people don't see it. And therefore governments are not responding the way they would if you could visibly see the deaths."

In this 25th year after acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome was first called "AIDS," an estimated 14 million of the world's children are AIDS orphans. Yet Sesame Workshop Vice President Charlotte Cole says there was initial nervousness about exploring AIDS issues in a children's program.

"We were working with kids three, four, five years old," she notes. "Is this something we could do with such young kids? But that was always countered by the belief that it was such an extreme circumstance there, where one in nine people is infected, and many, many more are affected by the disease, that any kind of education program in South Africa really needs to address HIV/AIDS on some level."

The producers place the Kami character into all sorts of situations. "We don't want her to just be the face of HIV/AIDS," Ms. Cole says. "We want her to be seen as a child, like everyone else."

She adds, "Kami is female. And the reason for that is that there's a disproportionate number of women with HIV. Kami's also asymptomatic, because there was a feeling that people were always equating HIV/AIDS with somebody sickly, and people didn't know that you can't necessarily identify the face of AIDS by just looking at someone. They wanted her to be vibrant."

Besides the casting of an HIV-positive puppet, Takalani Sesame has also developed the first radio version of a Sesame Street show that broadcasts into South Africa's remote, rural areas. And Sesame Workshop is working with other governments to bring Kami-like characters to more nations in southern and eastern Africa, in an effort to lessen the stigma of HIV/AIDS.