You might think pre-school’s a strange time to start teaching kids about HIV transmission and anti-AIDS prejudice, but first you need to meet Kami—the HIV+ muppet who’s lived on Takalani Sesame (the South African address of Sesame Street) since 2002.
Kami’s a furry yellow five-year-old orphan who contracted HIV as an infant through a blood transfusion. Though she usually has the sniffles, she’s energetic, friendly, and expresses loss and sad feelings in a way that Takalani’s three- to seven-year-old viewers can understand.
For the last eight years, Kami’s enthusiastically taught South African children about AIDS, a topic still considered taboo by plenty, despite one-in-nine people, including about 250,000 children, have been affected by the disease either personally or by association. Soon, she and Big Bird will premiere in Sesame Street Nigeria to teach kids about AIDS and the importance of staying in school. That’s big news, given a reported 3.1 percent of all Nigerians have HIV/AIDS and thousands of kids have been orphaned by the disease. Yet there’s some skepticism over whether Kami will make much of a difference in an impoverished country where most children have limited access to basic education. (There’s also the argument that, disgustingly, television is easier to access than school systems, and a teaching lesson on the tube could reach more young people.)
Sesame Street’s creators have already caved to Republican fears of Kami ever appearing in America. So: She won’t.
Of course, conservatives worry that featuring an HIV+ role-model on a children’s show would normalize the disease rather than silently shame it away. Their fears are overblown, though; Kami never mentions sex, and her teachings mirror that elementary AIDS educational already used by the New York Health Department elementary school literature (PDF link).
After all, education campaigns form an important part of any HIV prevention strategy. Take Uganda for example. There, an intensive HIV prevention campaign targeted at young women decreased HIV prevalence among pregnant women, from a high of around 30% in the early 1990s to around 10% in 2001. Getting kids to start thinking about safe practices now could go a long way to reducing HIV’s numbers in the future.
Sure, America doesn’t have as high a percentage of AIDS sufferers and orphans as Nigeria, but Kami could still do a lot of good here. Imagine her as a plucky, Sesame Street newcomer, straight from America’s heartland. She could be loving, smart, and knowledgeable that HIV/AIDS isn’t just a big city or gay issue, it affects everyone.
Mixing Kami’s HIV teaching with a pro-education message could go a long way towards silencing her American critics. But in the meantime, those critics have nothing else to offer our children besides empty rhetoric and abstinence-only education. And it will be they who worsen the epidemic worse by forcing the next generation to keep their heads alongside theirs in the sand — not a furry television character.