HIV in Miami: A Drug-Induced Ticking Time Bomb

A gloved hand holding a blood vile with the words HIV and box checked with red mark.

When most people think of HIV, they remember the heartbreaking epidemic that hit this country in the 1980s. Despite popular belief, the crisis has not passed. Due in part to this nation’s opioid epidemic, there are still rising numbers of new HIV cases. The hardest hit city in the country is Miami, Florida.

The Spread of HIV in South Florida

Miami is now at the epicenter of an HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States. Since the AIDS epidemic first began in 1981, Florida’s population has doubled to close to 21 million people. In 2016, the CDC reported that Miami had the highest per capita new HIV infection rate of any U.S. city at 47 per 100,000 people.

This figure is twice as high as New York City, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. The rest of Florida is not doing much better. Among the top 10 U.S. cities for new HIV diagnoses, other Florida cities to make the list include Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and Orlando.

That is not all. The CDC also reports that more HIV cases progress in Florida than in any other state. This happens because people begin taking antiretroviral (ARV) and then discontinue their drug regimen. While Florida has made some progress with new programs, it remains an uphill battle because of drug abuse and other issues that complicate this crisis.

The Role of Drug Abuse in this Crisis

Using and abusing alcohol or drugs puts people at a higher risk of getting or transmitting HIV. There are several ways that drug-related HIV occurs. First, being under the influence increases the chance that you will make poor decisions, such as having unprotected or unplanned sex.

Injecting drugs also poses a particular risk. HIV can be spread through sharing needles with someone who is infected. Even if you have not injected drugs in the past, one poor decision is all it would take to change your life forever.

After the Florida “pill mills” began closing down about seven years ago, it became more difficult to obtain prescription opioids. Unfortunately, some people with an opioid use disorder turned to heroin as a substitute. If they were not already using needles, heroin use encourages this and also comes with the added risk of HIV infection if a user shares those materials with someone else.

Other Factors at Play

One of the primary factors at play in Florida’s continuing HIV crisis is dealing with the different cultures residing in the state. There are cultural norms and beliefs that have a drastic impact on the way that people in these communities view HIV, certain risky behaviors, and reaching out for help.

First, Florida is still considered to be in the South and is staunchly conservative. Even the CDC notes that Bible Belt states are more likely to suffer from homophobia and transphobia as well as discomfort around discussing areas of sexuality. In some rural areas of the state, it is difficult to get testing and treatment for HIV. There have also been issues with getting public funds for effective Miami addiction treatment.

Miami, like much of Florida, also has a complex demographic that is made up of a large number of immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. There may be different programs needed to reach and convince each of these groups to seek HIV testing and accept other services when necessary.

Person sitting on a beach watching the sun set.

How is Miami Addressing These Issues?

New HIV incidence rates will not go down, and people will not get help until they know they have been infected. The first step is to increase access to testing. The DOH estimates that 15 percent of the over 135,000 HIV-infected people in Florida in 2016 did not know their status. This increases the chance of spreading new infections.

By addressing the various demographics throughout the state, there have been a variety of different campaigns aimed at encouraging free testing for HIV. This point of contact is one of the best opportunities to focus on education and prevention, whether a person tests positive or not.

Among people born in other countries, Haitian immigrants have the highest new HIV infection rate in Florida. Many of these clients speak limited English, and one campaign involves reaching out to this population on a Haitian Creole radio station based in Miami.

Some areas in Florida, including Miami, have syringe services programs (SSPs) to help drug users avoid HIV infection. Also referred to as needle exchange programs, these vital services did not become legal in Florida until 2016, but are proven to reduce the new incidence of HIV infections among drug users.

Unfortunately, needle exchanges in Florida were a long time coming. These programs were endorsed by the U.S. National Commission on AIDS in 1991 and have been in use in 32 U.S. states. It took years of lobbying in Florida to change the law to allow them, and the programs are just beginning. The University of Miami has a program and plans to roll out a mobile unit, called “Gamechanger,” in the next few months.

Those who are at high risk for HIV exposure are also now being provided with access to PrEP. Short for “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” these are free programs by the county health department that provide daily doses of a medicine that is meant to prevent HIV. When combined with condom use, PrEP is effective at reducing HIV infections among high-risk groups by up to 92 percent. The University of Miami also administers this program.

Where to Turn for Miami Addiction TreatmentĀ 

Miami may be known for its nightlife and beautiful beaches, but there can be dangerous consequences to overindulging in that sort of life for too long. South Florida has become an epicenter for opioid, cocaine, and methamphetamine use in recent years, all of which can lead to risky behavior and other severe health conditions.

If you are struggling with a substance use disorder, you can get help today at a Miami addiction treatment center. The Orlando Recovery Center is just a short drive out of the city and offers holistic and comprehensive drug and alcohol treatment to suit your particular needs.

Contact us now to speak with an addiction specialist for a free assessment and to discuss your admissions options.