More than a decade ago, the Daily Herald produced a series of reports spanning more than two years about heroin use in the suburbs. We called the series "The Hidden Scourge" to identify a problem that was lurking under the surface of suburban life, destroying lives but too rarely recognized as the immediate and serious threat it is.
Sadly, 10 years later, the scourge is no longer hidden. But just as sadly, the situation is no better, and possibly worse. Two major recent stories -- one distinctly suburban, one involving a nationally known celebrity -- emphasize the persistence and depth of the problem.
Television fans were saddened -- though perhaps not surprised -- to learn of the heroin-related death of "Glee" star Cory Monteith. Monteith's struggles with drugs and alcohol dependency were well-documented, but he often portrayed his story as one of having come to grips with his addiction. If some early news reports are accurate, even many of his closest friends -- though perhaps concerned for him, knowing the seriousness of his illness -- believed he was beating his addiction.
Then on Wednesday, the DuPage County coroner reported that as many as 15 deaths in the county this month may prove to be heroin related -- which could bring heroin deaths there so far this year nearly to the 38 such deaths for all of 2012. And that number was a 41 percent increase over 2011.
Nor is this a DuPage-specific affliction. Our work over the years since our "Hidden Scourge" series has clearly demonstrated a problem that spans the length and breadth of the suburbs, ignoring gender, race and social class.
The Monteith tragedy reminds us of what a complicated and devastating illness drug addiction is. Once contracted, it can be immensely difficult to overcome, even with the financial resources and caring support network that Monteith had.
The DuPage County statistics remind us of how prevalent and close at hand the disease is. The heroin scourge is not limited to fast-living, wealthy celebrities. It is not swept under the rug of inner-city poverty and hopelessness. It is not a product of a marginal counterculture rebellion. It is a real and present danger for all of us, and known to be so.
Why, then, does heroin use remain so alluring and so persistent? It's not like no one is trying to fight it.
Many activists are "working our behinds off," Kathie Kane-Willis, director of Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, told our Jamie Sotonoff for her report on the DuPage County numbers.
A key factor, Kane-Willis said, is that while many of us have become educated about the perils of heroin use, many of the people most threatened aren't hearing, seeing or listening to the message. To that end, Monteith's death can serve as a warning for impressionable young men and women to avoid altogether the risk of such a pernicious disease. But combined with numbers like those reported from DuPage County, it also emphasizes the warning to all of us that we can't just acknowledge that heroin addiction is a danger; we must also make sure that we and everyone around us knows that danger is at our own doorsteps.