Heroin, Opiate Addiction Labeled Today’s Public Health Crisis at Forum
The article below is from a recent online news publication and continues to illustrate the growing problem with opiates.
During a recent regional symposium sponsored by the City of Milwaukee and others, Bevan Baker, Milwaukee Health Commissioner, labeled the opiate addiction as a “definition of public crisis”.
A myriad of strategies were discussed at the symposium, including addressing the root causes of addiction, limiting easy access to prescription opiates, and increasing the availability of naloxone. Education also continues to be key in making all aware of the dangers of heroin and opiate addiction.
The older public health crises of polio and diphtheria have been replaced by heroin and opiate addiction, Milwaukee’s health commissioner said Wednesday.
“This meets every conceivable definition of a public health crisis,” Bevan Baker said.
Baker made his remarks Wednesday during a regional symposium titled “Heroin: Not on Our Watch — Protecting Our Communities.”
The all-day event, sponsored by the City of Milwaukee, the Zilber Family Foundation and Marquette University, featured panels of public health and drug treatment professionals, law enforcement officers and other officials from Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee, Racine and Washington counties.
It also brought together people who have been affected by heroin addiction, such as Kacie Wolfgram, who told her story of recovery for the first time publicly.
Everything started, she said, at age 15 when her older sister — her best friend — committed suicide.
Later, Wolfgram said, she was prescribed 22 medications throughout the years for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, bipolar disorder and depression. She even underwent electroshock therapy.
In college, she began using heroin to cope.
“I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to get high,” she said.
She used naloxone when two friends were overdosing, saving their lives, and once used it on herself.
But even after her overdose, she continued using heroin and, soon, she was selling. She trafficked drugs from Chicago to Green Bay. During a drug deal, she was raped and contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Her dreams of having a family suddenly seemed in doubt, she said.
She stopped using heroin, cold turkey.
“For me, I just wanted it over,” she said. “I really wanted that happy family and those beautiful babies.”
Wolfgram now works at the AIDS Resource Center, which she credits with saving her life, and said she feels blessed to help “people fight their inner demons.”
“I chose to share my story as a catalyst so that one day more recovering addicts can stand here as well, alive and hopeful,” she said.
Her words brought the people in attendance to their feet as they applauded.
Throughout the symposium Wednesday, other speakers stressed the need for collaboration among disciplines and all levels of government. Many highlighted the strong, and well-documented, link between prescription drug abuse and heroin.
When prescription drugs become too expensive, users often switch to heroin, Milwaukee Police Inspector Carianne Yerkes said.
A hit of heroin costs about $15, while the cost of illegal prescription drugs is closer to $80.
“Heroin is dirt cheap and very accessible,” she said.
Not only is heroin cheap and highly addictive, it’s also often lethal.
Last year in Milwaukee County, 67 people died of heroin-related overdoses — a 34% increase from the prior year — and in the first three months of 2014, the medical examiner’s office recorded 20 heroin-related deaths.
Law enforcement will continue to target violent, high-volume drug dealers, but focusing on the supply is not the full answer, Yerkes said.
“We need to find a way to reduce the demand and get individuals to understand that addiction is a public health problem,” she said.
A myriad of strategies were discussed, including addressing the root causes of addiction, limiting easy access to prescription opiates and increasing the availability of naloxone.
Any first responder in Wisconsin can administer naloxone if trained, under a new law Gov. Scott Walker signed in April.
The measure was among a package of laws dubbed the Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education, or HOPE, agenda.
Michael Gottlieb, director of the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Program at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, was asked if federal officials support making naloxone available to family members and friends of opiate addicts, or making it an over-the-counter drug.
“We believe strongly that naloxone saves lives,” Gottlieb said. “Our policy right now is to put it in the hands of more first responders.”
State Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette), who led efforts in drafting the HOPE agenda, said state lawmakers still have more work to do.
He also spoke about his daughter, Cassie, who has struggled with heroin addiction. She will be released from jail Friday, he said.
“I’m optimistic, yet nervous and scared for her future,” he said.