- Associated Press - Saturday, July 18, 2015

ST. LOUIS (AP) - A heroin task force meets regularly. Local students are given routine anti-drug talks. And still, heroin overdose deaths in Madison County in southwestern Illinois continue to climb.

Coroner Steve Nonn said this week that 28 people have suffered fatal heroin overdoses so far this year in the county just outside of St. Louis. With more than five months remaining in 2015, that total already exceeds the 26 heroin-related deaths recorded in both 2011 and 2014.

“The problem that we’re having is reflective of what’s going on nationwide,” Nonn said.

Another 11 deaths in the county this year are due to prescription drug overdoses, Nonn said, though the cause of death in some of those cases is preliminary pending final toxicology results.

Nine of the 28 heroin overdoses also await confirmation via drug screenings, but Nonn said that evidence found near the victims’ bodies coupled with past histories of abuse indicate a “high probability ” that heroin is to blame.

The number of heroin-related deaths is potentially higher since the coroner statistics don’t include victims who overdosed in Madison County but were taken to hospitals or other locations outside the county.

Madison County traces the current heroin epidemic back to 2009, when just seven fatal overdoses were recorded. It’s a pattern seen elsewhere in Illinois and around the country: DuPage County, west of Chicago, reported 46 heroin deaths in 2013 and 43 in 2012 after seeing them number in the 20s from 2007 to 2011. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 8,200 deaths from heroin use nationally in 2013, a nearly fourfold increase since 2002.

Madison County’s sheriff and top prosecutor formed a heroin task force early last year after three overdose victims were found within a five-hour span. County leaders also have shared their anti-drug message with more than 12,000 students the past two years at school assemblies - an outreach effort that Nonn identifies as one of the few recent bright spots.

“We still have such a long road ahead of us to end the grief and suffering,” he said. “But it is reassuring that I have not had a death certificate cross my desk with a high school student’s name on it along with the words ‘heroin overdose’ since we began the full court press of public information and education in 2013.”

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Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at https://twitter.com/azagier .

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