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Michael Friedman’s Tragic Death is an Opportunity to Set Things Straight

Michael Friedman’s Death is a Tragedy and an Opportunity to Set Things Straight

The award-winning Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson composer died at the young age of 41 due to AIDS complications. Let’s use this as a teachable moment.


To all those living with HIV in their teens, twenties, thirties, and forties: the recent news about Michael Friedman dying "due to complications of HIV/AIDS," as announced by The Public Theater, should not raise unwarranted fears for you personally.

Friedman was a beloved member of New York's theater community and was only 41 when he died. The multiple threads on social media about his death are already seeing false or outdated medical information posted in comments, etc.

"AIDS is not over" is a common response. It is a valid call to action, but it's often being said without much-needed context and is feeding some false comments about today's medical realities for those living with HIV.

Here's the bottom line: If you are taking your meds each day, especially the newer meds (there are now over 30 antiretrovirals on the market, and 48 more in the pipeline), AIDS will not suddenly foil your efforts and strike you down.

The statistics now are clear. You will most likely live a near normal lifespan. You might have to deal with extra health-related burdens in your later years, but they will be far fewer than those of us who lived through the plague years with periods of untreated HIV and the toxic early meds.

So yes, AIDS is not over. But AIDS in New York in 2017 is NOT AIDS in New York in 1995 (just before the drug cocktails were approved). Please don't read today's threads about Friedman's death to think your own prospects are worse than you thought. They are not.

New York State in 2014 saw 2,062 people with HIV die "from any cause" (including accidents, etc.) out of approximately 122,000 HIV-positive residents. Of those, 628 died from AIDS-related causes.

I've attached a chart from NYC showing the annual HIV-related death rates for various age groups: 

Hiv_related_deathsFor those in their 40s, about 5 out of 1,000 died from AIDS complications, and that number is falling each year. Comparitively, 9 of 1,000 Americans with diabetes die from diabetes-related causes each year.

So yes, AIDS is not over in New York, but HIV is easier to live with — by almost all measures, than diabetes.

How does HIV still kill in the U.S.? Most of the deaths can be pegged to the stigma around HIV. Due to stigma, folks avoid getting tested altogether, then find out their status too late in the game, or mentally avoid their diagnosis and become reluctant to seek care. Others burn-out on treatment, especially those who lived through the plague years and suffer from multiple complications from the early drugs and untreated HIV. And of course, there are plenty of cases of medical malpractice, where doctors fail to update regimens to find one that matches a patient's needs.

HIV-positive people die for the same reasons Americans die at higher rates from all diseases: Our shitty healthcare system lets us fall through the cracks, with mediocre coverage or no coverage at all.

But if you're HIV-positive, 41, and taking your meds each day, HIV doesn't have some secret trick that's going to sneak up on you and strike you down. You're going to be okay.

Life is hard enough without having to worry about bizarre "what-ifs."

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Peter Staley