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A Muppet tackles AIDS attitudes in South Africa

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The need to address the problem was underscored anew by a South African Human Sciences Research Council study released last month. It found that 5.6 percent of South African children ages 2 to 14 are HIV-positive, and that 13 percent of children in this age bracket have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Government estimates indicate that about 4.7 million South Africans - 1 in 9 - are infected with HIV, more people than in any other country in the world.

Takalani Sesame's decision to tackle negative stereotypes has precedence in the Muppet world. On "Sesame Park," the Canadian version, a character zooms along in a wheelchair to encourage positive attitudes towards the physically disabled. On "Rehov Sumsum," the show that airs in Israel, Jewish and Arab Muppets are best friends who like to harmonize about tolerance. And in Egypt, where girls' school attendance lags far behind boys', the most popular character on "Alam Simsim" is she-monster Khocka, a know-it-all book-reader (and book-eater).

"In South Africa, when we sat down to work on characters, it was clear that we could not ignore the issue of AIDS," says Laverne Engel, the program's studio producer. "That is the issue here, and dealing with it is vital when we think about the future of the country."

Back on "Takalani Sesame," Kami is drawing pictures with a gang of other Muppets and chatting in Zulu. The segment is about the number five. There is no mention of Kami's HIV status. "If we hammer the message at the audience all the time, it would get boring," says Ms. Engel. "We simply want to show that these children are part of our community too."

While research on Kami's effect on TV audiences - some eight million children and adults in South Africa watch the program - is still being compiled, anecdotal evidence suggests that the new Muppet is reaching her audience. "I listen to my kids, who are 5 and 2, quoting messages from the program and experiments with new thoughts and new ways of looking at HIV, and I think, 'Yes, this is working tremendously well," says Nick Warren, the series producer and head writer.

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