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As Drug Overdose Deaths Spike, a Look at Why Heroin is So Dangerous


Milwaukee County was struck by a rash of fatal drug overdoses this past weekend. Six people died in a 24-hour period.

The medical examiner's office hasn't confirmed whether heroin was to blame. But the drug frequently is, and it has killed hundreds of Wisconsinites in the past few years.

We revisit what we learned in our 2013 series, "In the Grip of Heroin," to examine what makes heroin so dangerous. There are at least three factors.

The first is how an overdose affects the human body, essentially telling it to shut down. Here's Michael Wright of the Milwaukee Fire Department.

"It basically disconnects the wire between the brain and the respiratory system, and they just stop breathing. I mean their lungs are fine, their heart is fine, brain is fine, but they just stop communicating and they simply stop breathing," Wright said.

And doctors in the ER see telltale signs in patients with an overdose. Dr. David Gummin is medical director of the Poison Center at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.

"They'll often come in extremely sleepy, in fact so sleepy that they're not able to support their own breathing. Tiny, pinpoint pupils are often part of it. Reduced body temperature, reduced respiratory rate and coma ultimately, with low blood pressure and respiratory arrest," Gummin said.

A second explanation for heroin's danger is that it's so addictive, because of how it makes people feel. Of those who try the drug, 75 percent go back for more.

"There's a sense of euphoria, a feel-good sense that occurs with use or abuse," Gummin said.

"All your cares are gone. Mentally, physically, you just feel great," said Kyle, a 30-year-old Milwaukee man who was hooked for five years. Kyle says he always found himself chasing his first high from the drug.

"It’s really hard to get back to the same point and that’s where a lot of people overdose, is trying to that same high that you had the first time. And you just end up using too much and before you know it, it’s over with," Kyle says.

It's also hard to stop using the drug. Matt, who's 31, tried to quit on numerous occasions. But he was miserable during withdrawal.

"After you do it a few times, your body, like, needs it to function. You will get so sick and ill. It’s like the flu times 100," Matt said.

A third reason heroin is known as an often-deadly drug is that users often don't know exactly what they're injecting. Michael Wright of the fire department says because users are so desperate, they're not likely to ask questions.

"They want to use it right away and depending where and what and how the drug was manufactured, it sometimes turns out with deadly results," Wright said.

In the last year state lawmakers have passed a number of bills -- and are considering more -- to grapple with the heroin problem. And the state justice department has run public service announcements aimed at young people. The central message: because the drug is so devastating, don't become a user in the first place.

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.
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