WHEELING, W.Va. — Amid all the talk of smoking bans and Ebola preparedness, Dr. Angelo Georges believes health officials need to focus on a much more acute threat to the public’s well-being: The heroin epidemic that is ruining – and too often ending – lives throughout the Ohio Valley.
Georges, chief medical officer at Wheeling Hospital, and other members of the Ohio Valley Addiction Action Plan Working Group, organized by U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld II in September to develop strategies to fight drug addiction, gathered Wednesday at the hospital to unveil their action plan.
Two major themes emerged from the presentation: The need for more treatment programs and better education of parents on the signs of heroin addiction.
Ihlenfeld said heroin grew in popularity during the 1970s but largely disappeared from the area before making a comeback a few years ago. While painkiller pills sell for as much as $80 on the street, addicts can buy a bag of heroin locally for as little as $8 to $10.
Two-thirds of heroin addicts have a history of prescription painkiller abuse, according to Ihlenfeld, who said increased demand for heroin coupled with a cheap supply of the drug through dealers from Chicago and New Jersey have created the perfect storm of conditions for a drug epidemic in the Ohio Valley.
“It really comes down to a lesson in economics, why we’re dealing with this problem,” Ihlenfeld said.
Retired probation officer James Lee and Circuit Judge David Sims both said a focus on putting the drug dealers behind bars while diverting the buyers who have fallen victim to addiction into treatment programs is necessary to win the fight against heroin.
Ihlenfeld said websites are also being developed to educate the public on the dangers of heroin and opioid abuse, as well as on the various treatment programs available.
One woman who identified herself as the mother of a recovering heroin addict said she wished she had known sooner what the cotton swabs, bent spoons and burnt spots on the kitchen counter meant.
“Parents need to be educated. … I didn’t know the symptoms and the signs that were laying around my own home,” she said.
Ihlenfeld agreed, adding his office is able to reach thousands of students in northern West Virginia because the schools provide a captive audience. Supplemental events held during the evenings for parents, however, can be hit or miss.
“We can’t force the parents to come. We’ve had events where we’ve had 100 people, and we’ve had events where we’ve had five people,” Ihlenfeld said.