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DENISE CROSBY: Heroin fight is slowly gaining momentum

Wheat02/21/14--Director Community Health Services AndreGargani demonstrates how set up nasal spray Narcan device. The DuPage County Health Department has helped

Wheaton, 02/21/14--Director of Community Health Services Andrea Gargani demonstrates how to set up a nasal spray Narcan device. The DuPage County Health Department has helped form a program to address the heroin epidemic by training police officers in the use of Narcan, a drug that can reverse a heroin overdose. | Jon Langham~for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 27, 2014 6:29AM

Back in the summer of 2011, I had lunch with several concerned women who did not like what I was writing about.

They appreciated the headlines. They hated the topic.

Heroin had been the cause of a series of deaths among young Naperville residents. So addiction counselor Kimberly Groll, and Karen Hanneman, who had lost her son earlier that year to heroin, wanted to brainstorm about ways the community could fight back.

On Monday the three of us had a chance to chat again. Only this time we were attending a round-table discussion put together by U.S. Rep. Bill Foster’s office to talk about heroin, specifically, the anti-overdose drug naloxone, and how it could be used to fight this epidemic.

Hanneman and I were part of this panel at Christian Community Church in Naperville. Groll was in the audience of professionals who had gathered to add their expertise. But before the forum began, I asked the women — both of whom have put countless hours into this issue since that meeting born out of tragedy and frustration — one question:

On a scale of one to 10, how far have our communities come?

There’s certainly been plenty more tragedy and frustration. In 2012 and 2013, 87 people died from heroin in DuPage County alone.

But there’s also no denying huge progress. Heroin is not only on the radar of just about every professional with any skin in the game — from teachers to treatment specialists from law enforcement to legislatures — it’s becoming a priority.

And for that reason Hanneman gave it an 8.

She pointed to the recent push for education and training for naloxone, approved by the Illinois General Assembly in 2010; and the 911 Good Samaritan Overdose Law enacted in 2012 that provides limited immunity in some drug overdose cases, as major steps.

She also pointed out in 2013, lawmaker created a task force to help coordinate prevention efforts and find legislative solutions to the heroin issue. The fact Foster’s Congressional office was holding this round-table — the second in a few months — is proof of just how much attention is being given the problem.

Kimberly Groll, however, gave progress a 4. More people die of drug overdoses in Illinois than car accidents. And until we can get to the root of why young people are turning to drugs, she insisted, we have a long way to go.

Likewise, the conversation generated by this panel on Monday represents this battle’s highs and lows.

Mark Piccoli, director of the DuPage Metropolitan Enforcement Group, says he’s never seen anything like this scourge in his 35 years in law enforcement. Drug trends come and go, he pointed out, yet this one has yet to reach a peak.

But local, state and federal agencies are talking, working together. And putting naloxone into the hands of families, addicts and first responders is just one example of how we are beginning to coordinate prevention efforts. Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department, says by the end of May, 1,100 officers in our area will be able to administer this life-saving drug.

As these experts pointed out, we also need to break stigmas. Addiction is not a choice, it is a disease. But it must be treated differently than other medical conditions, with opiates themselves treated differently than other drugs.

All of that takes education. On a scale of one to 10, this forum shows the needle is moving in the right direction.

That gives us reason to hope ... and keep fighting.

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