Senator Bill Nelson Tours Miller School’s Needle Exchange, Sees Opioid Epidemic First Hand
University of Miami champion U.S. Senator Bill Nelson toured the Miller School of Medicine’s needle exchange program on July 6. Joined by Edward Abraham, M.D., executive vice president for health affairs and CEO of UHealth – the University of Miami Health System, and Henri R. Ford, M.D., M.H.A., dean of the Miller School, Nelson got an in-depth look at the site’s comprehensive operations, including its mobile van. He also spoke with program participants, who shared personal testimonies of how the clinic has helped keep them healthier and helped their friends avoid overdoses.
The Infectious Disease Elimination Act (IDEA) Needle Exchange Program, located at 1636 NW 7th Avenue near the medical campus, provides clean needles and the overdose-reversal drug naloxone to injection drug users. Additionally, the program provides wound care and health screenings, including for HIV, and links participants to care. The first and only one of its kind in Florida, the exchange has made an impact in reducing the number of opioid-related deaths in Miami-Dade County.
“When the number of deaths from overdosage of drugs is cut by [almost] half in Miami-Dade as a result of this clinic and this IDEA Exchange, that’s testimony enough to what it’s doing for the betterment of our community,” said Nelson.
State Senator Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens), who for several years sponsored the bill to create the exchange, also took part in the tour and is seeking to expand the program statewide.
“What we are trying to do with this particular story is show it to other people around the state, and show exactly how we have results and data that prove that this is helping decrease the AIDS rate, decrease the overdoses, so it actually literally saves lives here in Miami-Dade County,” said Braynon. “We’re starting to make a dent in Miami-Dade County, and this is why.”
The exchange program was started in December 2016 by Hansel Tookes, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases and a member of Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Miller School. Tookes, who serves as the exchange’s medical director, spearheaded the years-long effort for state approval of the Infectious Disease Elimination Act, for which the center is named.
Ford, who was knowledgeable about the needle exchange program before joining UM as dean in June, said that he felt an overwhelming sense of pride after the site tour.
“I couldn’t be more proud to be a member of the ‘U’ community to know that this is an initiative that’s been undertaken by one of our faculty members because of his visionary leadership,” said Ford, who met with medical students who run the new wound care clinic and provide health screening and patient navigation services. “It makes me extremely proud of what this university stands for. And to see our medical students embrace this philosophy and run with it and try to actually make a difference and immediate impact, it makes me that much more proud and humble.”
Abraham said that programs such as the exchange are great examples of how UM is making a difference in the lives of vulnerable populations in South Florida.
“This is a very important effort for us that reaches out to the community,” said Abraham. “For us at UM, being part of the community and helping meet the community’s needs, it’s a critically important part of our portfolio of activities, which is really what we are all about in a very fundamental way.”
Leading Senator Nelson’s tour of the site, Tookes and his team of medical students and community outreach workers gave the senator a gracious and informative welcome.
“We are always grateful to have lawmakers visit the exchange and witness the level of commitment and lifesaving work being done to help stem the opioid epidemic and care for people with substance use disorders,” said Tookes.
He explained in detail the program’s successes and the range of infections, including HIV, and other severe medical complications that people who inject drugs face without clean syringes and access to medical care.
Others who were part of the tour included Joy Fishman, a community activist and mother who lost her son to overdose.
The IDEA Exchange is funded by the MAC AIDS Fund, the Elton John AIDS Foundation, Gilead Pharmaceuticals, the Fishman Family Foundation, the Comer Family Foundation and the Health Foundation of South Florida.