As suburban communities look to battle the problem of heroin abuse on all fronts, health and law enforcement leaders say they're working to build greater awareness of a drug that can counteract the effects of an overdose.
It's called Narcan or Naloxone, and it works by reviving receptors in the brain that are "put to sleep" by opiates such as heroin, Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department, said Monday during a forum hosted by staff members of U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Naperville Democrat.
"It absolutely brings someone back to life who is on the verge of death," Ayala said during the discussion at Community Christian Church in Naperville.
The DuPage County Health Department is working to train roughly 1,200 police officers to use Narcan in a nasal spray form, but others at the forum said the drug's availability to the public should be expanded as well.
"Most people aren't aware of Naloxone and what it can do," said Jim Scarpace, program director at Gateway Foundation Alcohol & Drug Treatment in Aurora. "It's something we feel strongly about supporting because we know the benefit of being able to administer it and its ability to save lives."
Narcan is legal and can be administered to heroin overdose victims by anyone -- even those without medical training -- under a state law that took effect in 2010. It can be injected into muscle or inhaled as a nasal spray.
Scarpace said the overdose reversal drug does not create a high and is nonaddictive. It works to reverse the effects of overdoses on all drugs classified as opioids, which includes some types of prescription painkillers.
Karen Hanneman of Naperville said she encourages parents to get trained to administer Narcan and have it on hand, especially if their children are struggling with drug addiction, like her son did. She said the Chicago Recovery Alliance and Stonybrook Center in Wheaton are among area organizations that offer such training.
"It's a very sensible thing to have," Hanneman said about the drug. "If you have a loved one that struggles with opiate addiction in your house, you need to have it."
Hanneman's son, Justin Tokar, died in January 2011 of a heroin overdose when he was 21.
"We want to tell them to just stop using, and with opiate addiction, that's not an option," she said.
Last year, a record 46 people died from heroin overdoses in DuPage County.
Heroin comes to the county, and to the suburban area as a whole, from Chicago, where gangs get it from Mexican drug cartels, said Mark Piccoli, director of the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group, a countywide agency that combats drug trafficking.
Although Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the largest drug cartel in Mexico, was arrested over the weekend, Piccoli said he expects the drug will continue to flow into Chicago and the suburbs.
"We're facing an epidemic of heroin abuse," said Maria DeLeon, outreach director for Foster's office. "We need to grow resources to combat the problem."