In response to a staggering number of heroin-related deaths this year, DuPage County officials are stepping up efforts to raise awareness about the drug's dangers.
DuPage County Board members did their part Tuesday by approving a $434.8 million budget for fiscal 2014 that sets aside $100,000 for a public education campaign targeted at heroin prevention. One goal of the effort will be to inform families about warning signs and where to find help.
"This is a public health epidemic," said county board member Grant Eckhoff, who is spearheading the initiative. "The consensus from everybody we've heard from is that we must do something."
The decision to launch a prevention campaign comes two months after Coroner Richard Jorgensen informed county board members about the alarming number of heroin deaths.
So far this year, there have been 43 confirmed heroin-related deaths in DuPage, officials said. That's five more than the county had for all of 2012.
And the final number for 2013 is expected to be even higher.
"This is a pervasive, deep-seated problem right now in DuPage County where we are at a rate of basically one person dying a week," county board member Gary Grasso said.
Authorities say one reason there's a growing trend of heroin use and death across the Chicago area and the nation is changes in the way the drug can be taken. It's also cheaper to acquire than in the past and highly addictive.
"The probability of getting hooked on heroin is so high that we needed more money put toward the educational programs that already are in place to help get this message out," Grasso said.
The education campaign -- called "Be a Hero in DuPage" -- will include a website and social media providing timely information, warning signs and resources, officials said. Additionally, the campaign will feature an awareness program for DuPage middle and high schools.
Regional Superintendent of Schools Darlene Ruscitti said students will be encouraged to learn about the dangers associated with heroin use as they create public service announcements and design collateral material associated with the campaign.
"The program will provide a great opportunity for teachers, parents and students to have a serious discussion about heroin and its effects on the user, on his or her family, and on society as a whole," Ruscitti said in a statement. "Our students are extremely creative and I look forward to reviewing their submissions."
Initially, the county was planning to set aside $50,000 for the campaign, but Grasso pushed for the amount to be doubled. The $100,000 was approved Tuesday after Sheriff John Zaruba agreed to let half the money come out of his office's budget.
"We shouldn't wait on something like this," Grasso said. "This is an area where government should react."
The 2014 county budget, which takes effect Dec. 1, totals $434.8 million. The spending plan includes $87 million for capital initiatives, such as stormwater, drainage and road projects.