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'This is a disease': Opioid crisis moves from local stage to national spotlight

The Beacon-News - 10/28/2017

Oct. 28--President Donald Trump this week declared what people in DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will counties have known for years: opioid abuse is a national public health emergency.

While local officials were thrilled the issue was finally brought to the national limelight, many questioned if it will have any trickle-down effect in terms of making more resources available.

Oswego mom Robin Dale finds hope in Trump's announcement -- if it means additional funding for treatment and educational programs.

She has made it her mission to raise awareness of drug abuse after witnessing her own son's battle with heroin addiction.

"The opioid epidemic definitely is a public health emergency," she said. "I hope this isn't something that falls through the cracks. I have been waiting to hear this is a public health emergency for a long time.

"We need to raise awareness that the drugs our kids are using are killing them," she said. "My son has lost probably 10 friends and I have attended so many funerals. This shouldn't be. Society needs to realize this is a disease. We have treat addiction as we treat cancers, diabetes or heart disease. Sending people to jail isn't the solution," she said.

It was only after high school that she realized her son was addicted to heroin. He is now 26 years old, clean and working at job out-of-state, she said.

"I talk to parents in Oswego and they don't think it can happen to their child," she said.

Naperville anti-heroin crusader Tim Ryan said it's great the president is talking about this "but the rubber will hit the road (when Trump announces) a true plan of action. We need many more beds for people without insurance or state insurance."

Ryan urges government officials to seek guidance from people in recovery programs because they know what does and doesn't work.

"We can toss money, but it needs to be located in the right areas like more sober-living homes for when people come out of treatment," he said. "We will never get rid of drugs. We need to start to look at this a whole different way."

The president laid out steps to combat addiction and abuse, promising a "massive advertising campaign" that puts special emphasis on discouraging young people from trying drugs.

Experts have concluded that similar drug prevention campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s fared poorly under scientific review and did little to prevent drug use.

Aaron Weiner, director of addiction services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville, said the best way to educate young people is to make sure they know the risks.

It's also important to curb the stigma associated with drug use by speaking openly and starting conversations, he said. Many people taking opioid pain pills are afraid to say they're addicted because they're worried about what their family or their physician will say.

"While (Trump's) declaration will help draw attention to the problem and provide some additional resources, the more powerful statement will be the way we talk about addiction every day," Weiner said.

DuPage County has aggressively worked to reduce the number of opioid deaths annually, and this fall was awarded a $1.5 million grant to increase training and medication for emergency treatment of opioid overdose.

"From a local public health perspective, I do view the declaration as a positive step ... and indicates a level of awareness that we have not yet received regarding the toll that this crisis has taken on every community across the United States, including DuPage County," said Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department.

"As an agency, we look forward to addressing the issues around access to treatment for individuals who are addicted through this opportunity," Ayala said.

Data from the DuPage County Coroner's Office shows 78 deaths were attributed to heroin overdoses in 2016, compared to 51 in 2015. No information was posted on 2017, and the coroner was not available for comment.

To stem the rising death count, county officials introduced the DuPage Narcan Program to teach first responders how to administer Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids.

As of September, 105 lives in DuPage County were saved in 2017 and a total of 344 lives since it was initiated in 2013.

Kane County Health Department Executive Director Barb Jeffers said she was glad the opioid crisis is being addressed at the national level.

The number of opioid overdose deaths has risen in the last four years, with 38 in 2013, 35 in 2014, 35 in 2015 and 60 in 2016.

Kane County started its Narcan program in 2014, working with 26 towns to make the overdose antidote drug available and to train public safety workers on how to use it. Thus far, it has saved 80 lives, Jeffers said.

Expanding first responder training and addiction treatment programs is being studied by the House Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, said U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Schaumburg, a member of the task force.

"The opioid crisis is absolutely a public health emergency, but this declaration does not include our communities and first responders needed to make a difference," Krishnamoorthi said in a statement. "As a member of the Oversight Committee, I'm also working to reduce the prices of lifesaving overdose treatments."

While U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, applauds the president's decision to declare "what too many communities in Illinois and across American already know: the opioid crisis is a public health emergency," he'd like to see money to fund efforts.

Speaking in a release, Foster said if the president is serious about helping those who are dependent on opioids and their families, he needs to provide communities with the financial resources needed to fight it.

"The Trump administration should also fund scientific research that has helped us understand the science of addiction and develop new lifesaving treatments instead of cutting it from budget proposals," he said.

Such research hits close to home.

Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont has performed groundbreaking research on protein receptors to understand the brain's response to drugs, yet Trump's fiscal year 2018 budget proposes major cuts to the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds Argonne and its research, Foster said.

Prevention, treatment and research aren't the only area affected by the opioid epidemic. The rising number of drug overdoses can cost a county -- and ultimately taxpayers -- money.

Will County Coroner Patrick O'Neil said there is no way to examine someone who's died and determine it was caused by a drug overdose without toxicology testing.

"From our perspective, it's costing thousands of dollars," he said.

In the last week, Will County's had nine deaths related to heroin, fentanyl and fake fentanyl.

"Our office is just overwhelmed. We certainly could use a few more employees to handle the cases," O'Neil said.

Deaths in Will County in 2016 attributable to heroin or fentanyl totaled 78, compared to 53 reported in 2015. The number of heroin/fentanyl overdose deaths in 2017 stand at 58, according to the latest figures.

State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, said the opioid crisis continues to be a growing problem in her district and throughout Illinois.

"I am happy to see the president wants to tackle this issue head-on," Chapa LaVia said.

"It's my hope that he will put the necessary resources behind his requests so that we can save lives. I am ready to work with all of our partners to do whatever we can to get the resources out to those who need them the most," she said.

One way health professionals are dealing with the opioid crisis directly is through medication-assisted therapy programs.

Jerry Skogmo, executive director of the Renz Counseling Center in Elgin, said Renz started such a program and has had about 20 people participate in it, he said.

Linden Oaks Behavioral Health, the psychiatric service provider for Edward-Elmhurst Health, opened a long-term MAT clinic this year.

The Naperville program is open to anyone who is motivated to stop using opioids. No physician referral is needed, and some people can begin their treatment journey at the clinic.

Courier-News reporter Mike Danahey, freelance reporter Linda Girardi and The Associated Press contributed.

subaker@tribpub.com

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(c)2017 The Beacon-News (Aurora, Ill.)

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