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In Southwestern Pennsylvania, Some Heroin Problems Persist


Today, we're looking into what's happened with some of the more compelling stories we've covered this year. We've been reporting on the resurgence of opiate abuse in the U.S. One of the saddest incidents occurred last February - a cluster of 22 overdose deaths in the Pittsburgh area from heroin spiked with the painkiller fentanyl.


MAYOR BILL PEDUTO: Right at this very moment, there is a batch of heroin out there that will kill you. And we're trying to tell people if you have it, throw it away.

RATH: That was the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, speaking to TV station KDKA in January. Dr. Neil Capretto is the medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh. He says region's problems with heroin have continued, though not at the same intensity.

NEIL CAPRETTO: The fentanyl was a spike within a crisis. This has been an ongoing crisis for many years. I mean, back in 1985 and 1986, Pittsburgh area - Allegheny County - had 22 overdose deaths. In 2012, we had 290. Last year, we had 278. We may be somewhere in that range this year. So this has just been ongoing. The fentanyl killed a lot of people, but the regular heroine that's out there is killing, you know, at least five people a week, on average, in the Pittsburgh area.

RATH: Also this year, there was the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of a combined drug overdose and brought a lot of attention to the rise of heroine abuse in the country. Do you think that changed the conversation at all?

CAPRETTO: I believe it did to some degree with some people. I mean, it helped raise awareness. I mean, it kind of humanized the problem. I've actually had a couple people come into treatment a couple months following that who said learning of his death was a factor that helped get their attention and motivate them to get help.

RATH: Wow. And in the media coverage, did you see any misconceptions or misunderstandings that came across from how it was covered?

CAPRETTO: Well, I think it helped. I think, unfortunately, a lot of people have this misconception that addiction - particularly, heroin addiction - only happens to a certain segment of society that's in the inner-city, you know, living homeless under bridges. But this is now very much a problem of all people - in the cities, the suburbs, rural area.

And actually, in Pennsylvania and a lot of the country, the rates of overdose deaths in the suburbs and rural areas are actually now proportionally higher than the city 'cause this has spread like an infectious disease with - it was the prescription medicine problem that started, but then this new heroin came in in the late-'90s, and that is now everywhere. We have more heroin being used in our community than at any time in our existence, and I still see that problem's getting worse before it gets better. And actually, nationally, the prescription drug overdose problem has improved a little bit, but the heroin problem has increased as a lot of people convert from prescription drugs, unfortunately, over to heroin because it's much cheaper, but often it's much more deadly.

RATH: And so sadly, it seems that you've really got your hands full as much as ever. Is there anything that the federal government or local government can do to help ease the crisis?

CAPRETTO: The short answer is yes. I'm happy to say three things got accomplished this fall in Pennsylvania legislature. We now - the Good Samaritan law got available. That allows people who call for help for somebody who has died from an overdose, basically, immunity if they're caught with just drug paraphernalia. Second thing is the law to make Narcan or noloxone more available. That's a drug that reverses an overdose. Both of those were unanimous in both the House and Senate in Pennsylvania, which is basically unheard of. And also, the third thing that came through was a prescription monitoring program that will allow doctors to check to see if patients are obtaining prescriptions from multiple physicians.

So government can do a role. The leaders in government can help mobilize the citizens. And right now, there's a strong kind of grassroots movement of people. And unfortunately, it's driven by a lot of families and, unfortunately, parents who have lost their kids from overdoses.

RATH: Dr. Neil Capretto is the medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh. He joined us from member station WESA. Dr. Capretto, thank you.

NEIL CAPRETTO: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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