Officials in Philadelphia announced on Tuesday that the city will allow "safe injection sites," in an effort to reduce a staggering epidemic of fatal opioid overdoses.
The facilities, also known as "supervised injection sites" or "safe consumption sites," provide clean needles and space for people who inject illicit drugs. If an overdose occurs, trained staff can administer naloxone, which reverses the overdose. The facilities also test for HIV, provide wound care, and refer users to substance abuse treatment.
“We cannot just watch as our children, our parents, our brothers, and our sisters die of drug overdose,” Thomas Farley, Philadelphia's health commissioner, said in a statement. “We have to use every proven tool we can to save their lives until they recover from the grip of addiction.”
Philadelphia has the worst fatal overdose rate in the nation among large cities, Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. He applauded the city's "bold action to help save lives."
Philadelphia has an estimated 70,000 heroin users, according to its health department. City officials on Tuesday released a scientific review of safe injection sites. The report estimated that a single site in Philadelphia could prevent up to 76 drug overdose deaths per year. (In 2016, 907 people in Philadelphia died of an overdose.) Costs saved from averting overdose deaths were estimated at anywhere from $12.5 million to $75 million per year.
Long controversial in the US, roughly 100 safe injection sites are operating in 66 cities across the world. The first site to open in North America, a facility called Insite in Vancouver, has had more than 3.6 million drug injections under nurse supervision, 6,440 overdose interventions, and zero deaths. Officials from Philadelphia visited Vancouver in November 2017 to observe their prevention efforts firsthand.
Last January, Seattle became the first US city to announce plans to open a supervised injection site. After the Seattle mayor's announcement, a rapid backlash developed, as residents who opposed the sites tried and failed to get a ballot measure passed that would have banned them altogether.
In November, the Seattle city council announced that they would allocate $1.3 million for a site in the city. In contrast, the city of Philadelphia will not be funding or operating a site, but rather providing support to private sector development of the sites.
Other cities — including San Francisco, Ithaca, Denver, and New York — are also considering opening supervised injection sites to stop the steady rise of opioid overdose deaths.
At least one facility has been secretly operating underground in an undisclosed US city since 2014.
"Supervised injection facilities, while often controversial from a public point of view, are not controversial from a public health point of view," Jay Unick, a medical epidemiologist at the University of Maryland, told BuzzFeed News. "Overdoses are preventable. They are absolutely preventable. That’s the thing."
Azeen Ghorayshi is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Her PGP Fingerprint is 672A 7C08 9443 A95F 9D85 78FB 91EB 9C30 B197 5963.
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