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Opioid addiction most significant public health issue, officials work to raise awareness

CHICAGO -- The state of Illinois is making a decisive plan to fight drug addiction. Doctors say they know it and law enforcement knows, now officials are hoping every person realizes that opioid addiction is the most significant public health and public safety issue.

“I used drugs to escape because that’s all I knew," said Jessica Gerke.

Gerke knows first hand the ravages of addiction. For eight years she was a slave to drugs, in and out of prison. Until one day in drug court.

"The judge asked me if I wanted help and I said yes. And I meant it," she said.

That was eight and a half years ago. A success story, Gerke is now sharing her tale to help others.

"It’s not easy, it got worse before it got better but with the right services in place, you can battle back and reclaim your life," Gerke said.

And doctors know exactly how.

"Expanded medication, assisted treatment, behavioral health counseling and social support are vitally needed," said Dr. Thomas Huggett, an addiction physician at Lawndale Christian Health Center.

"We have already seen many success stories of those on medication assisted treatment who are now feeling much better now that they are not using heroin," he said.

But in the state of Illinois alone – more than 240,000 people are using and need help. The numbers are staggering and rising.

"Last year alone 1,900 people in Illinois died because of opioid related deaths. For context, that’s nearly twice the number of fatal car accidents in Illinois last year and one and a half times the number of people who died of a homicide," said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

That’s why Illinois’ public health department director is heading up a task force for opioid prevention and intervention. And they don’t just plan to meet – they plan to act.

First on the agenda, changing the perception of drug addiction.

"Until we move from a place of misunderstanding to a place of understanding it will be very difficult to make a dent in the numbers," said Shah.

"When your son dies alone with a needle in his arm of a heroin overdose, no one shows up. No one shares your pain...the stigma that faces individuals with opioid use disorder is unimaginably cruel," Shah added.

"Opioid use disorder is a chronic disease of the brain. It starts as a combo of genetic and environmental triggers like hypertension and diabetes… leads to physical tolerance, craving and destructive behaviors, it's large public health burden for our state," said James Dimas, secretary of Illinois Department of Human Services.

So Governor Rauner signed an executive order Wednesday to bring state law enforcement, medical experts and volunteers together building on an effort he began two years ago.

"We’ve got to do even more," Rauner said.

Do more, to turn out more people like Gerke.

"I’m back in school, I am getting my degree and I can also help people who are like me," said Gerke.

The first meeting of the new opioid prevention and intervention task force is in a few days. Meantime in Chicago city council Wednesday - -alderman Ed Burke introduced an ordinance to have police officers carry nalaxone – the overdose reverse medication.

Health experts say it does save lives and they urge anyone who knows an addict to have it on hand as well.