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Local Officials Continue Efforts to Curb Substance Abuse in Milwaukee County


Overdoses from heroin and prescription painkillers are killing thousands of people around the country. In Milwaukee County alone, more than 270 died from drug overdoses in the first eight months of this year. Recently, 11 people passed away over a four-day period. 

A number of efforts have been launched to fight the problem. They include a task force the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County created about six months ago, which seeks to fight the abuse of heroin, opioid painkillers and cocaine.

Ald. Michael Murphy, a member of the task force, says drug addiction is a public health issue. Yet, he says other medical problems likely would have received more attention, earlier.

“As a society we have been all suffering from this terrible public health epidemic and I think if I had tried to tell citizens this was due to Zika virus there would be a much different marshaling of resources to fight this problem, but because it's a drug addiction problem -- unfortunately I think the stigma associated with it -- it doesn't get the financial resources or the wherewithal to try and address it," Murphy says. 

The city-county task force has been meeting frequently to discuss ways to prevent drug abuse and deaths.

Dr. Selahattin Kurter says the conversation must start with treatment and education. He is a Milwaukee area psychiatrist, who's treated thousands of patients who were addicted to opiates. 

“If we look from evidence-based analysis, education and treatment are the most effective. Treatment by far helps save people's lives. The pendulum needs to switch more toward education and treatment," Kurter says. 

Kurter says it's best to tailor treatments to the specific needs of each patient. He says he's pleased government officials are looking for solutions to the opioid crisis, but he says it's still not enough.

“I think the city can play a much larger role in helping (to fight) the opioid epidemic by encouraging more treatment facilities, by dialoguing with treatment facilities. The city is offering a place for discussions to occur, but I'm not seeing a lot of outreach. The city needs to be engaging with treatment providers and coming up with a very comprehensive plan of how to tackle this."

Wisconsin's attorney general is also looking for ways to reduce the use of heroin and opioid painkillers. Brad Schimel's office has a public service campaign; so did the previous attorney general.

Schimel says it's important to get the message out that people struggling with addiction should come forward before it's too late. 

“One of the ways we believe we can stretch our limited treatment resources is by convincing people to come forward earlier, to seek help earlier, because a lot of times right now by the time we get a chance to intervene, we've got them in the back of a squad car or in our jail, or they're in an ambulance on their way to the hospital," Schimel says. 

In addition to its regular meetings, the City-County Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force will hold meetings in the community on the next two Saturdays, to get the public's input on ways to address the crisis.

Teran is WUWM's race & ethnicity reporter.
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