For about a quarter to a third of the world’s population (and that’s just an estimate of the actual Christians who celebrate Christmas), it’s, “Well, now we have no excuse not to get our butts in gear and prepare for Christmas” Day. For the majority of people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s, “Thank goodness there are only 20 more days until the Winter Solstice, and then we’ll start getting more daylight again” Day. Both of those carry with them a certain amount of anxiety, and a certain amount of hope. The same might be said for the formal assignment (by the World Health Organization, in 1988) of this date — World Aids Day.
Yeah, you heard me. I’m talking about AIDS. The sad thing is, that will still shock people. It will also confuse some of them. When I mentioned on Twitter earlier that I was going to be doing this feature, I started getting direct messages from people asking why I would focus on this kind of subject when my topic here is supposed to be “Special Needs Kids”. Well, that’s one of the easier questions I’ve had to answer. Maybe the reason has something to do with the fact that census data from 2007 shows 563 new cases of AIDS in children up to the age of 19, (in the United States and District of Colombia,) and 16,467 cumulative estimated cases for the same age range, between the recognized US outbreak of the viral epidemic in 1981, and 2007. 3,792 of those children were under the age of 13. The vast majority of these children acquired HIV from their mothers during pregnancy, labor, delivery or breastfeeding, which rather dings the argument that a discussion about HIV and AIDS with or about children who have the disease necessitates immediate discussion of drug use, unprotected sex (and good grief, no, not just “gay sex”), etc. — though obviously, plenty of arguments can be made for (and there’s no avoiding the “against”, either, yes I know, I’m braced for your comments) considering discussions about those means of contracting the virus that can be controlled. It’s true, children do not comprise a large percentage of AIDS cases, and, in fact, the numbers are decreasing. During 2006 there were an estimated 28 pediatric AIDS diagnoses, compared to 195 in 1999 and 896 in 1992. (The decline in pediatric AIDS incidence is associated with more HIV testing of pregnant women and the use of antiretroviral drugs such as zidovudine (AZT) by HIV-infected pregnant women and their newborn infants.) All the same, the numbers can’t be denied, and should not be ignored.
And, of course, those are just some numbers for children who have AIDS themselves. (If you don’t think they count as special-needs kids, please think again.) As President Obama noted in his proclamation, “With an infection occurring every nine-and-a-half minutes in America, there are more than one million individuals estimated to be living with the disease in our country. Of those currently infected, one in five does not know they have the condition, and the majority of new infections are spread by people who are unaware of their own status. HIV/AIDS does not discriminate as it infiltrates neighborhoods and communities. Americans of any gender, age, ethnicity, income, or sexual orientation can and are contracting the disease.” Guess what? That means that even if your child doesn’t have the disease, they very well might know someone who does. Directly or indirectly, our children are living with this disease.
And yet, while the United States is turning from fear towards respect when it comes to AIDS — with the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reporting that the 1987 policy barring entry by HIV-positive visitors and immigrants will be overturned (effective early next year), according to President Obama, and that with the repeal of the ban, the International AIDS Society will hold the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. — we’re still big fans of hiding when it comes to our children. Did you hear the rumor about the world’s first HIV-positive Muppet? Yeah, um….it’s not a rumor. Introduced in 2002 in Takalani Sesame, the South African Sesame Street co-production, the character of Kami made the international news, and has since appeared at the United Nations UNICEF events, at the World Bank, and at the Peabody Awards. She was interviewed by Katie Couric on NBC news, and starred in a commercial with Bill Clinton. The yellow-furred, eternally-five-year-old monster has been named a UNICEF Ambassador and Champion for Children and has appeared in Takalani segments alongside, among others, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. With a name derived from Kamogelo — which means “acceptance” or “welcome” in Setswana, Zulu, and Sesotho – the orphaned Kami, (who is not only HIV-positive but lost her mother to HIV/AIDS,) acts as a strong role model in South Africa, providing hope for 28,000 HIV-positive children and 1.4 million orphans of the disease. She deals with the insecurities related to acceptance, she talks about coping and loss, and she teaches about the disease in age-relevant ways, like showing that it’s ok to hug someone that has HIV, without fear. Sounds pretty threatening, huh?
Besides, the USA-based Sesame Street’s 40 years on PBS, has never really pulled a lot of punches. They have tackled sensitive subjects such as death, divorce, pregnancy and childbirth, lying, stealing, racism, and gender stereotyping. (In some countries’ Henson co-productions of the show, difficult and painful political situations, even including the bloody conflict between Israel and Palestine, have also been depicted in an age-appropriate manner.) So when Kami was reportedly originally presented by Joel Schneider at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain in 2002, media reports at that time gave many the impression that this character was proposed for the American version of the program. I mean, after all, we do have those children dealing with HIV/AIDS here. But no. Nevermind that when you’re talking about a communicable disease, awareness….for which actual TALKING helps….can make a monumental difference, both in terms of slowing the spread of the disease, and in terms of improving the quality of life of those who already are touched by it. This subject was still too taboo, too inappropriate for American children. Sparks flew from conservatives, controversy flared, and Republican congressmen Billy Tauzin, Chip Pickering, Fred Upton, Joe Barton, Richard Burr and Cliff Stearns cautioned PBS against introducing similarly-affected Muppets to an American audience, just….you know….reminding PBS that Congress could withhold funding. And so it is that although Kami has made appearances in the United States (where her character is performed by Fran Brill), she has yet to incarnate in the American production of Sesame Street. In fact, although there are versions of the program in over 140 countries, South Africa’s remains the only one to feature an HIV-positive character.
Kami’s been in the American awareness since 2002, people. HIV/AIDS has been something we couldn’t ignore here since 1981. How long will it take us to teach our children about this? How long before they learn that it’s ok to have a friend with this special need, too?
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