Florida's First Needle Exchange Launches on World AIDS Day

By Keri Blakinger 12/12/16

South Florida's rate of new HIV cases was three times the national average in 2015.

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Florida's First Needle Exchange Launches on World AIDS Day
Photo: via CDC

Amid a recent spike in overdose deaths, the Sunshine State opened its first needle exchange on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

The brand-new University of Miami five-year pilot program is a sign of progress that’s been years in the making. “Syringe exchange is one of the most evidence-based interventions we have to prevent HIV,” University of Miami physician Dr. Hansel Tookes said in a press release.

“As the heroin epidemic in South Florida flourishes, we now have the proper tools to keep this population healthy. Harm reduction works and now Miami will join other progressive U.S. cities to better service our citizens.”

Tookes, who’s been supporting needle exchanges since he was in med school, has been one of the city’s loudest exchange advocates.

After years of testifying before the state legislature and fighting a seemingly impossible fight, the 35-year-old finally made his long-term goal a reality earlier this year when the Republican-controlled state legislature approved a controversial measure.

Then in March, Gov. Rick Scott finally signed the Miami-Dade Infectious Disease Elimination Act into law, laying the legal groundwork for last week’s opening.

“When I flew back to Miami after the bill had passed, I looked at the city as we were landing at MIA and I thought, what we just did is going to change the health of tens of thousands of people,” Tookes told the Miami Herald when the bill passed. “And that was an amazing feeling. And that’s an amazing truth. And that’s where we are.”

The new exchange comes in the middle of a public health crisis for the port city. Despite the work of dedicated public advocates like Tookes, Miami led the country in number of new HIV infections in 2015.

For years, infection rates in the southern city have topped state and national charts, according to the Miami paper. It was those numbers that drove Tookes to action. “I think as physicians, we had a duty to intervene,” he said.

Needle exchange programs started in Amsterdam in 1983, but stateside they’ve consistently been a source of controversy. But as public support has shifted away from the drug war and toward treatment, harm reduction approaches have seen a surge in popularity. By 2016, Florida was one of just 15 states without some sort of needle exchange program in place.

Even as Miami makes progress on the harm reduction front, the city is battling a surge in opioid overdoses. In the first nine months of the year, Miami Fire-Rescue stations used the anti-overdose drug Narcan almost 1,000 times. So far, the city has seen 140 suspected overdoses in 2016.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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