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Top stories of 2015: the heroin crisis in the midstate

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Dec 25, 2015 4:03 AM
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Through the end of 2015, WITF is reviewing the top stories of the year. Today, the midstate's heroin crisis.

For the second year in a row, the heroin crisis is one of WITF's top stories.

Pennsylvania has made progress in addressing the epidemic, but overdose deaths are still expected to surge past 2014's high.

It's hard to get an exact count, but heroin killed at least 800 people across the commonwealth last year.

This year's count is expected to be even higher - despite a growing response from government.

Many police departments now carry the life-saving drug naloxone, which reverses a heroin overdose.

It's already been used to save more than 500 lives.

And the head of the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs is pushing for better treatment when a person is brought back to life.

Secretary Gary Tennis says the stigma around the disease is starting to fade away.

"Treat this person as if they came in with a massive coronary," says Tennis.

"So if they had a heart attack, I'm not saying to them Ben, you know, you ought to think about going to a cardiologist, here's a phone number to call, I'm having the cardiologist come in and talk to you and start talking to you about your treatment plan

Tennis also credits Medicaid expansion for helping get people the treatment they need.

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Kathy Long is a member of the group ASAP Lititz in Lancaster County, which works to raise awareness about substance abuse.

Her nephew is addicted to heroin, and he's lost two of his friends in the past six months.

"The addicts become desperate and then begin to burglarize, steal from cars, homes, in whatever way they can," she says.

She wants to stop addiction before it starts.

"There have got to be some aggressive measures taken to reduce the number of prescriptions that physicians are writing."

Federal statistics show more than 80 percent of those who end up addicted to heroin started with prescription painkillers.

The crisis has touched nearly every part of the state.

State Corrections Department Secretary John Wetzel says over the past ten years, the number of people in state prisons who are addicted to drugs has doubled to about 12 percent.

So now, when people who are addicted are discharged, he says they may be selected to receive a monthly shot that blocks heroin cravings.

"Plain and simple, we're trying pilots because what we've been doing isn't working. You know, there's this old African proverb that says when the music changes, so does the dance, and clearly the music has changed," he adds.

Wetzel says he hopes this year has been rock bottom for the crisis, and things will start to improve next year.

After all, some are calling this the worst public health crisis since the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918.

Says Tennis: "That was worse. But since then, nothing has really hit us as a society."

A final count of those killed by heroin overdoses in 2015 isn't expected until May of next year.

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