Florida Adopts Harm Reduction Measures
In the world of drugs and alcohol, addicts are subject to many tragic consequences. Long-term addiction and abuse of drugs lead to overdose and death for many addicts. Even for addicts who don’t overdose and are lucky enough to live through their active addiction, the health consequences of recurrent drug use are severe. Harm reduction programs enable addicts to use drugs as safely as possible. The hope with these initiatives is the addict will eventually seek treatment and get sober.
What is Harm Reduction?
“Harm reduction” is an umbrella term for a variety of policies and programs that aim to mitigate the negative consequences of drug use. For example, needle exchange programs exist in order to reduce the spread of communicable blood borne diseases, like HIV, by ensuring that addicts have access to clean and sterile syringes. Other examples of harm reduction measures include:
- Treatment, rather than incarceration, of drug addicts
- Narcan (overdose antidote) distribution
- The Good Samaritan Act (protects drug addicts from arrest when they call 911 to help a friend who is overdosing)
- Supervised injection sites
States seeking to address the devastating consequences of the opioid addiction epidemic adopt these methods. IV drug users are at an increased risk of contracting HIV or communicable diseases hepatitis C. Needle exchanges are especially effective in harm reduction because they prevent the spread of these diseases. Needle exchanges also ensure that users have access to clean and sterile equipment. This can significantly reduce the number of hospital visits due to infection or abscess. In Indiana in 2015, an HIV outbreak spread in Scott County, infecting nearly 200 people. All of those infected were intravenous drug users. Experts note that the availability of a syringe exchange, which was illegal in Indiana at the time, could have prevented the outbreak.
Harm Reduction in Florida
Until recently, the state of Florida has resisted adopting harm reduction measures for drug users. Unfortunately, the city of Miami has the highest incidence of HIV infection in the nation. This is partially due to intravenous drug use among the population. For this reason, it was a huge step forward for Miami and for Florida when the state’s first-ever needle exchange program launched on World AIDS day, December 1st, 2016.
The Infectious Disease Elimination Pilot Program signed into law by Governor Rick Scott, reverses decades of strict drug laws by allowing the University of Miami to host a pilot needle exchange program. The purpose of the needle exchange is to provide IV drug users with sterile, new syringes to reduce needle sharing and the spread of blood-borne diseases like HIV/AIDS. In one part of the clinic, patients can exchange used needles for new, sterile needles, as well as pick up cotton balls, tourniquets, cookers, and sterile water to use for injecting drugs. In the other part of the clinic, patients can receive first-aid care for infections and abscesses. They may also receive medical care or substance abuse counseling and/or confidential testing for HIV and hepatitis C, both of which are commonly transmitted through IV drug use.
Does Harm Reduction Work?
Addiction has terrible consequences, from financial ruin and incarceration to disease and death. The only surefire way to prevent the tragic outcomes of drug addiction is for the addict to seek and achieve long-term sobriety through abstinence. Some of the long-term impacts of drug use, specifically IV heroin use, are:
- Liver or kidney damage
- Changes in brain structure
- Respiratory problems
- Rupture of veins or cardiovascular problems
- Infections and abscesses
- HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C
- Overdose and death
The only way to prevent any of these health consequences is abstinence from drugs and recovery. However, for patients who are unwilling or unable to seek treatment, harm reduction can mitigate further damage until they’re ready for treatment. This will make it easier for the individuals to eventually seek drug treatment when they are ready.
Preventing the Spread of Disease
Preventing new cases of HIV/AIDS is good for the community as a whole. Protecting the health of active addicts will only assist them in the long run. If they decide to get sober, dealing with an HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C diagnosis will only complicate treatment. This will just make it more difficult for the addict to stay sober. Preventative measures that reduce the risk of contracting illnesses may help addicts who want to get sober in the future.
One of the other major benefits of the needle exchange program in Miami is that it offers substance abuse counseling and medical help to a previously inaccessible population. For homeless and transient drug users, it is nearly impossible to provide consistent mental health services or addiction treatment. By offering these services alongside a syringe exchange, Miami medical professionals are able to offer help to a segment of the population that usually does not have access to health care or treatment.
Ultimately, long-term sobriety is the best way to avoid the deadly consequences of addiction. For those addicts who are not ready to get help, harm reduction programs like Miami’s needle exchange can make a big difference. It can keep them healthy enough to have a good chance at treatment when they are finally ready.