DuPage County sees spike in heroin, fentanyl deaths
A spike in drug-related deaths has DuPage County officials again warning about the dangers of heroin and, increasingly, fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a painkiller that can be 100 times more potent than morphine, and designer versions of the drug are even stronger.
Last year, seven of the 43 heroin-related deaths in DuPage were caused by heroin mixed with fentanyl, officials said. So far this year, there already have been 12 deaths caused by the combination.
"Never before has heroin prevention been more important than it is today, right here in DuPage County," county board Chairman Dan Cronin said during a Wednesday morning news conference.
Meanwhile, a growing number of people in DuPage have died after taking only fentanyl. Last year, there were eight fentanyl-related deaths; that number is at 10 after only five months this year.
"People are taking fentanyl alone as a recreational drug," Coroner Richard Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen said three trends are leading to increased overdoses and deaths.
First, large amounts of fentanyl are being distributed -- either alone or mixed with heroin. While heroin in its purest form is four to five times stronger than morphine, medical fentanyl is 100 times more powerful.
Second, fentanyl and designer versions of the drug are being produced in home labs or imported. "It used to be only found in medical pharmaceutical supplies," Jorgensen said.
The designer versions of fentanyl are five to 10 times stronger than medical fentanyl, officials said.
Third, illicitly manufactured fentanyl is being mislabeled and packaged to look like other drugs, including OxyContin and Xanax.
That means many drug users don't even know what they're taking.
Because of the influx of heroin and fentanyl, DuPage authorities say they're depending more heavily on the opiate overdose reversal drug Narcan to save lives.
Last year, police officers trained through the DuPage Narcan Program -- part of the county's multitiered effort to combat heroin -- saved 62 people who were overdosing on heroin or fentanyl.
So far this year, there already have been 64 saves.
"These spikes have caught the attention of everyone working against drug abuse and deaths caused by drugs," said Hanover Park Deputy Police Chief Andrew Johnson, representing the DuPage Chiefs of Police Association. "So our intent today is to raise a red flag among all DuPage County residents. This problem isn't going away, and at this point, it's getting worse."
Karen Ayala, executive director of the county health department, said public health officials will be stepping up their efforts on multiple fronts.
For example, officials are offering a comprehensive opioid prevention education program at middle and high schools around DuPage.
The health department also has a program that reaches out to heroin users and connects them with organizations that support efforts to get treatment and stay clean.