NEW YORK (AP) - The South African version of ``Sesame Street'' is introducing a character with a problem far more serious than scraped knees or missing cookies. She's HIV positive.

The Muppet character will join the cast of the children's show in September to help educate children about AIDS at the urging of the South African government.

Some 4.7 million South Africans - one in nine - are HIV positive, more people than in any other country in the world.

There are no plans to incorporate an HIV-positive Muppet in the American or other versions of the show, said representatives of Sesame Workshop, its New York-based production company.

Plans for the South African version were announced this week at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

``Takalani Sesame'' in South Africa is one of several locally produced versions of the children's program. Egypt, Russia, Germany, Mexico and Spain, among other countries, all have shows modeled after the American ``Sesame Street'' that premiered in 1969.

The South African show uses Muppets similar to the American characters of Big Bird, Elmo and the Cookie Monster. The South African Cookie Monster, for example, is called Zikwe.

Sesame Workshop hasn't revealed the new, HIV-positive character's name, but it will be a girl Muppet who is an orphan, said Robert Knezevic, head of the company's international division.

In one script being developed, the character is sad because she misses her mother, he said. In another, the character is shunned by children who don't want to play with her because she is HIV-positive, but the other Muppets rally around her.

Children won't be told how the character became HIV positive. Nor will the common ways that the virus is transmitted - through sexual contact or drug abuse - be discussed, he said.

``We don't think those are appropriate issues to deal with on the air through a television program that targets children,'' he said.

Educational materials distributed to parents who request them will suggest ways of broaching the more delicate subjects with their children, he said. The government hopes the show will be a springboard for family discussions.

``One of the things about the Muppets is they are so non-threatening to children that we can communicate what may seem to be controversial messages and start a dialogue,'' Knezevic said.

The American version of ``Sesame Street,'' for example, gingerly introduced the issue of the terrorist attacks by having Elmo be scared about a fire in the general store. The Egyptian version of the show frequently stresses the need for girls to get an education, at the government's behest.

In South Africa, despite the large population infected with AIDS, there is a crushing stigma surrounding it. The government has been criticized for its often lackluster approach to fighting the disease, but recently expanded its budget as the Cabinet announced a strong effort to fight AIDS.

``We want to build hope and address the issues of stereotypes against HIV,'' said Yvonne Kgame of the South African Broadcasting Corp., which airs the program.

``The reality is that children as young as they are affected very closely by HIV/AIDS. They experience death and dying of people very close to them.'' 07/12/02 15:43 EDT

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