Come autumn, the children’s television show “Sesame Street” will introduce its first HIV-positive Muppet character to children of South Africa, where one in nine people have the virus that can lead to AIDS.

The character doesn’t have a name yet, or even final colour or a form. The Muppet will be an orphan girl.

In one script being developed, she is sad because she misses her mother. In another, children who don’t want to play with her because she is HIV-positive shun her, but the other Muppets rally around. She will have high self-esteem and be a good role model for dealing with one’s situation and interacting with the community. Not quite Oscar the Grouch.

Sesame Street began in 1969. It’s a world of bright individual characters, short cartoons and grown ups accepted as their own species. Its Muppet characters are in our consciousnesses now: Big Bird, Elmo, Bert and Ernie.

The show is geared to three to seven-year-olds, so it doesn’t deal with how people get sick and die, and it’s not going to start now. We won’t be told how the new Muppet became HIV-positive. There will be no talk of the common ways that the virus is transmitted — through sexual contact or drug abuse.

This is the world we live in: with an HIV positive character on Sesame Street. It’s the right thing, a model of interaction and touching we still need to see. More than 40 million people are living with AIDS. 2.7 million of them are children under the age of 15.

Makes sense in Africa.

Although the new character will be seen around the world, it makes sense that this initiative is starting in South Africa – a continent where AIDS continues to ravage the population.

In North America we have access to expensive drugs, education and condoms. The world got sidetracked in thinking AIDS was a gay disease — its first name was GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) — and incubating homophobia, and other factors, contribute to its spread.

Poverty. If the drugs to combat AIDS need to be taken with food or water, and you live somewhere with no food or access to clean water, all the medication in the world can’t help.

Myths. If you believe the lubricant or spermicide on condoms spread AIDS, you won’t use one. And if you believe sex with a virgin cures AIDS, you might go rape one.

It’s time to portray more women with HIV and AIDS. And time to help women say no.

Al McNutt is a gay man and long-time AIDS activist, working out of Truro with the Northern AIDS Connection Society. He’s just back from the AIDS Conference in Barcelona where the announcement about the new Muppet was made.

McNutt says it’s important that the character is a female. His voice trills up and down the octaves. “Oh, my. Women taking control of their lives is a really key issue,” he says. “Here in North America more men than women have AIDS, but in Third World countries, its more of an even split.

“Women suffer because they haven’t been taught to say no to sex, or even unsafe sex.”

Children all over the world are born with AIDS, or suffer from its effects. Protecting children doesn’t mean keeping them innocent; it means giving them strength.

A Muppet is a good start.