Education and prevention are the best ways to combat the growing problem of heroin addiction, a panel of law enforcement, health and education experts told U.S. Rep. Robert Dold during a round-table discussion Monday.
And the first step to any successful eradication effort, the panelists agreed, is to convince leaders and parents in all communities that the problem is universal.
"The days of heroin use being confined to the wrong people in the wrong towns are gone," said Wayne Hunter, Lake County sheriff chief of administration. "It is a plague of all communities, all incomes and all children."
Dold said the discussion, held at the Lake County sheriff's office in Waukegan, was prompted in part by a series of Daily Herald articles that put a human face on heroin addiction and its consequences.
"As we saw in those articles, heroin's victims are becoming younger and come from the entire spectrum of society," Dold said. "We need to develop a universal message for both children and parents to alert them of the danger."
Heroin began to spread its influence from the traditional underprivileged needle-using addict of the 1950s through the 1980s because of several factors, Sheriff Mark Curran said.
An increase in purity and potentcy in the heroin available now eliminates the need to inject the drug, Curran said, and smoking or inhaling it is much more socially acceptable.
It is cheaper than cocaine or marijuana, and younger people in suburban communities are turning to it in increasing numbers to cope with stress.
"The age of our client population in our addiction treatment programs is going down," said Irene Pierce, executive director of the Lake County Health Department. "Just a few years ago, 30 percent of our clients were under the age of 18 and today that number is 54 percent."
That means a unified message is needed for the entire audience, especially those who may not want to hear it, said Kathleen Burke, the CEO of the Robert Crown Centers for Health Education.
"Unfortunately, we still have schools, communities and parents who really believe that it is not a problem for them," Burke said. "Without acceptance of the problem across the board, we will only be attacking part of the problem."
The panelists recommended development of a program that speaks honestly and openly to children and parents about heroin, and encourages parents to learn what signals to look for in their children and to engage in helpful dialogues on the subject.
Dold said he would take the suggestions made Monday and search for a way to get his office more involved in working with local officials to combat the crisis.
Michelle Hines of Lake Zurich told the panel of her past experiences with her son Bobby's years-long struggle with heroin addition.
Her son was raised in a loving household with a full support system, Hines said, but has watched several of his friends, including his 18-year-old girlfriend, die from overdoses.
"These are good kids coming from good families in good communities," Hines said. "No one is immune."