By Ted Scouten

FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) – World AIDS Day is a time to remember those lost to HIV and AIDS, and to show support for those living with it.

“It is nearly 40 years since the start of the worst pandemic in our lifetime, a pandemic that effected over 75 million people and over 32 million deaths globally,” said Dr. Ana Puga, regional medical director south for ViiV Healthcare.

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Marc Paige has been living with HIV for decades.

“I got the HIV test diagnosis in February of 89,” Paige said.

He believes he contracted it possibly in the late 70s.

It nearly took his life.

“In 1995 I was at my sickest,” he said. “I had 30 T-cells and they’re the helper cells, the back bone of our immune system.  You’re supposed to have about 1,000 per drop of blood and I had 30.  I pretty much had no immune system.”

His life changed in 1996 when he began taking a new cocktail of life saving drugs.

“Many of us had the Lazarus effect. We really rose from the dead, basically. We rose from wheelchairs. We rose from our beds. We rose from being too sick to eat, drink, anything.  The drugs started kicking in,” he said.

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Paige volunteers at the World AIDS Museum in Fort Lauderdale, educating the public about HIV and AIDS.

On Tuesday, the World AIDS Museum held an observance at the Galleria.

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The event, called Rock the Ribbon, featured performances by Styx rock band member Chuck Panozzo, the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus, singer Laura Vivas from The Voice, and DJ Aulden Brown.

Paige knows society has come a long way, but still has more to go.

Science has been the backbone of the HIV response. Daily antiviral therapy has changed an HIV diagnosis from a death sentence, and today those infected can expect to have a nearly normal life span.

However, more than 30 years into the HIV pandemic, over 13 million people still do not have access to the therapies and treatment.

Factors ranging from new infections, limited access to health care, stigma, discrimination, persistent myths, fears about treatment and supply chain limitations have all contributed to preventing HIV treatment.

According to the Florida Department of Health, there are 116,689 people living with HIV, including 27,319 in Miami-Dade, 20,507 in Broward and 561 in the Keys.

Statewide, in 2019, 692 people died from AIDS related illnesses, including 137 in Dade, 108 in Broward and 2 in the Keys.

“Get tested,” Paige pleads, “because if you find that you have it, get on the drugs, keep the virus from destroying your immune system and also you make it impossible to pass the virus to somebody else.”

Despite advances, there is no cure.

Paige urges people to know their status and protect themselves.

“If you’re with somebody and you don’t know their status, wear a condom. I like to think of the mask today for COVID is the new condom we had for HIV. Both are so important to staying healthy,” he said.

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Ted Scouten