MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Giving needles to drug addicts sounds like a recipe for disaster.
But it’s happening here in Miami, and it could help curb a major public health crisis in South Florida.
CBS4’s Lauren Pastrana continues her investigation into Heroin: The Silent Killer, and how a brand new program could be helping not just users, but the entire community.
Needles, used and dangerous, fill South Florida streets.
They’re a product of the ongoing and worsening heroin and synthetic opioid epidemic plaguing our community.
CBS4 first shared the shocking images last fall.
Our ride-along revealed first responders answering call after call of reported heroin overdoses.
The use of powerful synthetics, like fentanyl and carfentanil, strong enough to tranquillize an elephant, is also on the rise. The local medical examiner’s office says fentanyl-related deaths were up almost 700 percent from 2014 to 2015.
“Florida is being ravaged by opioids,” said Dr. Hansel Tookes, a public health physician at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
The needles used to inject the potentially lethal substances are discarded in our streets and parks, or used again and again, increasing the risk of spreading diseases.
But the work happening in a couple of repurposed shipping containers in Miami, across from The Camillus House, could help clean up the community and save lives at the same time.
“We found eight times the number of syringes in Miami, over 300,” Dr. Tookes explained of his research project while he was still a student at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
His findings inspired an idea to create a needle exchange in South Florida.
The idea met resistance from some health professionals, the public and state lawmakers.
It took years for the UM-backed legislation to pass, paving the way for the IDEA Exchange: The Infectious Disease Elimination Act.
“After four years of blood sweat and tears, we finally passed the legislation. A lot changed in that time though. The nation was reeling with the heroin epidemic and Miami was not spared,” Dr. Tookes said.
Here’s how it works: People can bring in used needles and get a new, clean one in return. Bring in twenty old needles? Get twenty new ones.
The goal is to get the dirty needless off the streets and cut down on disease transmission, like the spread of Hepatitis and HIV in South Florida, which has one of the highest rates of new infections in the country.
“I thought it was great,” said a woman who turned in a handful of needles recently.
We’ve concealed her identity for privacy reasons, but she told CBS4’s Lauren Pastrana she’s been using drugs for 13 years.
“How hard is it to break the cycle?” we asked.
“Very hard,” she said.
“Have you been able to get clean before?”
“Only when I’m in the hospital or in jail,” she replied.
This particular day marked her third visit to the Exchange.
“It cuts down on diseases, Hepatitis and AIDS, by not using old needles. You don’t have to pick them up off the ground if you don’t have money to buy one,” she said.
The Exchange usually keeps about 10,000 new, clean needles on hand. That may sound like a lot, but people aren’t just bringing in one used needle. We’re told one person once brought in 400.
“With time, the community will hopefully grow to appreciate that we’re here,” said IDEA Exchange Outreach Coordinator Emy Martinez. “This is a program that’s kind of hard to swallow for a lot of people. They think that the needle exchange is making people inject. It’s not. It’s helping people stay healthy.”
The Exchange is a pilot program and Florida statute prohibits it from being funded with state, county or municipal dollars.
Dr. Tookes knows keeping the exchange open won’t be easy but he says it will be worth it.
“If we prevent two HIV infections, just two, we have paid for the program for a year. Because lifetime treatment of HIV is about $380,000,” he explained.
Dr. Tookes said it will take about $500,000 a year to keep it up and running and that will come from private donations and grants.
Since it opened on December 1st, The IDEA Exchange has served more than 130 clients and counting.