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Heroin deaths vex southwestern Illinois county

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Just northeast of St. Louis, authorities in Illinois' Madison County have grappled for years with a surge in heroin deaths in their turf. But what happened last week proved especially deflating — three bodies, each suspected overdoses, found within a five-hour span.

Now the sheriff and the county's top prosecutor are launching a new tact, announcing Thursday plans to draw more people — drug-treatment experts, educators and possibly junkies themselves — into discussions about how to stem the number of deaths.

Acknowledging that convening such a task force may appear desperate, Sheriff Bob Hertz said efforts by local law enforcers to educate students and parents about the deadliness of heroin hasn't drawn the results, requiring a more inclusive approach.

That tipping point came last week, when three suspected heroin deaths — people ages 40, 38 and 29 — were reported in one night, bringing to six the number of such demises in the county less than two months into the year. In 2009, coroner Steve Nonn said, there were seven deadly heroin overdoses, less than one-third the 23 logged there last year.

Nonn said it may be impossible to discern whether any of last week's cases were related, given that investigators found no unused heroin at the scenes to test for commonalities. Lab testing of the victims' blood samples may show whether any or all the cases involved heroin mixed with such things as antidepressants or the prescription painkiller fentanyl, or if the drug was from an especially lethal batch.

But Hertz said last week's toll "really is a wakeup call for us" — the same thing Tom Gibbons, the county's state's attorney, labeled emblematic of "the epidemic that is poisoning our community and ruining many young lives."

"There's not a silver bullet to this, and I don't think it's a situation where we can arrest ourselves out of it," Hertz said. "But we just can't ignore this. It's not going away, and something has to be done."

To Hertz, attacking the problem may first involve eroding what he considers common beliefs that heroin deaths are merely a law-enforcement issue and that those who die from the highly addictive drug were losers worthy of public scorn and little compassion.

"Quite frankly, the majority of people shrug their shoulders and say, 'Oh well, just another drug user off the streets,'" Nonn said. "But we're looking at these people as victims, not drug users. That's a parent's kid laying on that floor, and they deserve for us to find out who gave them that drug and to prosecute."

Calling heroin suppliers "dealers in death," Nonn said the addiction and overdoses are a health care issue.

"If I gave you the same statistics on the heroin deaths here and said it was swine flu, there'd be a panic in this county and people running to the doctor, 'Save me. Help me,'" he said. "That'd be getting all kinds of press, but because it's heroin it's getting nothing. And that's wrong."

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