With DuPage County poised for a record number of heroin-related deaths, Coroner Richard Jorgensen is urging elected officials to help raise awareness of the drug's dangers.
There have been 38 confirmed heroin-related deaths in DuPage so far this year, Jorgensen told the county board Tuesday. That's equal to the number of heroin deaths in the county for all of 2012.
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With several months left in the year, Jorgensen said he fears the county will set a dubious record.
"We have to accept that we have a problem," he said. "And the only way to deal with it is to understand that it's in every community and every age group and every socioeconomic group."
Jorgensen said one reason there's a growing trend of heroin use and death across the Chicago area and the nation is because of changes in the way the drug can be taken. It's also cheaper to acquire than in the past and highly addictive.
"It is a not a drug that you casually use," Jorgensen said.
As the numbers show in DuPage, using heroin can be deadly. At one point over the summer, the county had 15 heroin overdose deaths in 17 days.
Among the DuPage residents who died this year from heroin, 32 were men. The oldest was 64 and the youngest was 15. The victims lived in communities throughout the county.
"There is not a hot spot," Jorgensen said. "There is not one town. It is a countywide phenomenon."
He said raising public awareness is key to combating the heroin epidemic. That effort must include educating students in schools about the hazards of heroin, he said.
"Please talk to your principals and superintendents and make them accept and teach and understand that we have a serious heroin problem," Jorgensen said to county board members.
He said information also needs to get out about available overdose prevention tools, including the overdose reversal drug Naloxone. DuPage police officers soon are expected to be carrying Naloxone in their squad cars, Jorgensen said.
In addition to spreading the word, Jorgensen asked the county board to be progressive and support ideas that seem outside the box.
He cited drug court as an example, because it provides an alternative sentencing program that allows nonviolent offenders dealing with substance addiction to stay out of prison by getting treatment. DuPage has had a drug court program for years.
Jorgensen said the county needs to be willing to provide funding for prevention programs.
"We need money to run these programs," he said to the board. "And we need your support in developing all kinds of new programs."