In October 2017, the federal Department of Health & Human Services declared a public health emergency to address the national opioid crisis. That year, drug overdoses killed a record-breaking 72,300 Americans, more than the yearly death tolls from HIV, car crashes, and gun deaths combined.

Most of those deaths – about 68 percent – were caused by opioids. Since that federal declaration was made two years ago this month, we have seen some progress in the fight against opioid addiction and abuse in Vermilion County, but the opioid epidemic continues to claim too many lives in our community.

As a 22-year veteran of the Danville Police Department when I was elected coroner in 2016, I knew that drug addiction was a problem in Vermilion County, but the problem is much worse than I realized.

In the last three years, we have had more than 50 drug overdoses in the county. While I was encouraged by lower numbers in 2018, drug overdose deaths have risen again in 2019. Most of those have been opioid-related, and that is on top of the 171 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths between 2013 and 2017.

The numbers in Vermilion County mirror troubling statistics nationally. Nearly 400,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids, from 1999 to 2017.

Calling it the “third wave” of the opioid crisis, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the recent rise in overdose deaths since 2013 is being fueled by illicitly-manufactured fentanyl. Deaths from fentanyl have skyrocketed in recent years, increasing 520 percent from 2013 to 2016. In contrast, the increase in deaths from prescription opioids has leveled off.

Fentanyl is driving the opioid epidemic nationally, and we are seeing it more and more in Vermilion County. Because it is cheap and easy to distribute, local law enforcement often find it mixed with heroin or other drugs, and it puts users in even more danger because the drug is so potent.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that fentanyl can be 50 times more potent than heroin, 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and deadly in a dosage as small as a few grains of salt.

The victims of opioid and drug addiction are not just those who choose to abuse these deadly drugs. While the cutback on opioid prescribing nationally has been a positive step in tackling the addiction crisis, some pain sufferers have been forced to taper off their prescriptions and have considered going to the black market to get the drugs they say they need. But that is a dangerous idea.

Counterfeit pills stamped to look like legitimate prescriptions are all too common, and the DEA says they have flooded the country. Law enforcement has seized thousands of pills all over the U.S. from New York to California and everywhere in between. Most of these drugs are manufactured in China, smuggled across the border or at points of entry, and trafficked all over the country.

To combat the opioid epidemic in Vermilion County, we must be honest about the problem in our community. As coroner, I have seen drug overdoses take the lives of both men and women and victims from 19 to 69. The epidemic has killed long-time drug abusers and unsuspecting first-time users. Drug abuse and addiction affect entire families, parents and children, loved ones and friends. It affects the community at large.

The first step to addressing the opioid and drug abuse problem in Vermilion County is recognizing that it exists and that all of us must do more to fight it in our community.

If you or a loved one are at risk of addiction to opioids or any drug, please get help and utilize services that are available locally or call the national substance abuse and mental health helpline at 1-800-662-HELP, before it’s too late.

Jane McFadden serves as Vermilion County Coroner.

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