A sign of an epidemic: Shocking stats, helpful numbers shine light on opioid abuse

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Opioids drugs are sweeping the nation with an addiction rate so high it is often referred to as an epidemic.

But they say knowledge is power. And at a time when Americans are feeling helpless in the fight, something is being done to reach families affected and those not yet touched by the shocking statistics.


In the Milwaukee area these days reaching users, their families and future opioid abusers is as easy as hitting the road. Digital billboards have been flashing above the highways since November. Over 50 billboards in five counties rotate 12-15 messages every day.  Messages flash with the latest statistics like there were 343 drug related deaths there in 2016 alone.  Another message urges people to dispose of their meds properly to avoid abuse by others. One posts a simple 3 digit number to get help: 2-1-1.

The DEA is one of the groups behind the campaign.

"With the billboard initiative, that's one thing we want to do.  Not just raise awareness, but with raising awareness, we want to suggest that there is hope,” said Robert Bell who is with the DEA.

John Hyatt and the people of Impact, a longtime non-profit with a specialty in substance abuse in Milwaukee, man the phones and field the 2-1-1 family health and social services calls.   Hyatt says the billboards are working.

“We have an increase in calls. People are seeing it. People will call and say, ‘Hey, I've seen a billboard.’” Hyatt said.  “The numbers in our call center are up by 10% since the campaign started.”

The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's office is responsible for updating the shocking statistics drivers see on the billboards.

Sara Schreiber is with the office and said, "I have fielded questions from people who see the billboards.  ‘Are those numbers really legit? Is this really as high as those numbers are?’”

Adding fentanyl to the mix on the streets, she says, only accelerates  the death rate and creates more fear about what's next in the booming illicit drug business. Fentanyl deaths more than tripled in one year.

But the M.E.'s office says the signs from the road are being seen because their phones are ringing too.

"This is a very upfront way to show the citizens in your county or city that these numbers are real, these people are dying, and it's a problem every day of the week, all year long,” said Schreiber.

The need for the billboards is greater than ever. That's why the DEA, Clear Channel and other private sponsors are bringing them to the Chicago area too.

The opioid billboard campaign has long expired in Wisconsin, but Clear Channel has found ways and resources to extend it there. The campaign makes it way here to Chicago in late April or early May. Watch for the billboards and begin the conversation in your car.

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