I-Team: Number of people saved shows true scope of heroin/fentanyl epidemic

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EUCLID - Sitting on the shores of Lake Erie, Euclid is a nice-size community: it covers a little more than ten square miles, and is home to just under fifty thousand people.

Which makes the number of people saved by its fire department last year all the more frightening. In 2015, the city's paramedics and firefighters administered Nalaxone to 145 people who were overdosing.  

The drug is an antidote for those who may well otherwise die on the spot from an opiate overdose brought on by prescription pills, heroin, or, increasingly, fentanyl - a drug much more dangerous than even heroin.

"I wish I could say...this is going to go away," says Euclid Fire Chief Chris Haddock, "but it doesn't appear that way. It appears to be getting worse."  Euclid's fire department was successful in saving most of the people it treated - most of whom do not live in Euclid.

But the fact that a fire department in a medium-size city in Cuyahoga County had to respond to 145 overdoses in one year is staggering - and shows the true depth of the heroin/opiate epidemic. And that epidemic is now being fueled by the rise of a new and potentially more deadly  threat - fentanyl.

Like heroin and prescription pills such as Oxycodone and Oxycontin, fentanyl is an opiate-based drug.

Its legal uses in prescription for include as a sedative for open-heart surgery, and as a painkiller for people battling cancer. Mexican drug cartels are now mixing it with the illegal heroin they are sending over the border.

"It has a potency about 80 times that of morphine," says Dr. Jason Jerry with the Cleveland Clinic's Drug Recovery Center.  

Dr. Jerry says it cab be "hundreds of times more (potent) than heroin, depending on how many times the heroin is cut. According to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner, five people died from fentanyl overdoses in 2013; 37 died in 2014, and 89 in 2015. So far this year, for the first time ever, fentanyl overdose deaths are outpacing those attributed to heroin - a scary trend given the potency of fentanyl.

Jason Sebaugh nearly died, after taking heroin that he did not know had been laced with fentanyl. Paramedics in Olmsted Falls had to give him three doses of Nalaxone to bring him back from the brink of death. Sebaugh, who went through rehab at Cleveland's Stella Maris Treatment Center, says not only is the drug incredibly dangerous, it is also a lie. "It's far more dangerous than heroin ever could be," he says, "(but) there's no high."

"We have never seen anything like this," Dr. Thomas Gilson, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner, says of the rise of fentanyl, which is now being disguised by drug cartels to look like a prescription pill.  Dr. Joan Papp of MetroHealth Medical Center is on the front lines trying to fight the epidemic. "I heard an addict once say, 'we're not bad people trying to get good; we're sick people trying to get better,"' she says.

Dr. Papp helped found "Project Dawn", which provides free and legal antidote kits to anyone in nasal spray form.  "We know that the success rate for staying sober even after the best treatment is low," Dr. Papp says, "but what our program does is at least give them a fighting chance."

The growth in the number of people saved by Project Dawn is remarkable - but also helps to show just how fast the addiction epidemic is growing.  In 2013, the program is credited for 32 "reversals" - that is, 32 people were revived through antidote kits distributed by Project Dawn.

In 2014, that number almost tripled to 92, and last year, it almost doubled again to 170.  Those numbers, combined with the number of people saved just in Euclid, suggest hundreds of more people may have died without the antidote drugs in just the past couple of years. And, back in Euclid, Chief Haddock expects his firefighters and paramedics to respond to even more reports of overdoses this year than last. "I wish I could see an end in sight," he says.

In Cuyahoga County right now, nobody can.