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From 1997 to 2017, almost 400,000 people died from an opioid overdose nationally. The number of opioid-induced deaths in 2017 alone was six times higher than 1999. That year, drug overdoses killed a record-breaking 72,300 Americans, more than the yearly death tolls from HIV, car crashes and gun deaths combined.

As a result, the federal government declared a public health emergency in October 2017 to combat the main driver of drug overdoses — opioid abuse and addiction. Since that declaration was made two years ago this month, we have seen a slight reduction in opioid-induced deaths in Champaign County, but the opioid epidemic continues to be a major problem in our community.

Over the last two decades, the opioid crisis has evolved over time but continues to be a serious threat nationally because of the rise of synthetic opioids.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has detailed three distinct waves of the opioid crisis: the first wave fueled by prescription opioids (1999-2010), the second wave fueled by heroin (2010-2013) and the third wave fueled by illegally produced synthetic opioids like fentanyl (2013-present).

By 2016, approximately 75 percent of opioid deaths were caused by illicit fentanyl and heroin, while the increase in deaths from prescription opioids leveled off. Specifically in Illinois, the National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that deaths from fentanyl skyrocketed by 834 percent from 2014 to 2017.

Fentanyl is now the driving force behind the opioid epidemic nationwide because the drug is so deadly.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), fentanyl can be 50 times stronger than heroin and can be deadly in a dose as small as a few grains of salt. Even worse, fentanyl’s chemical cousin, carfentanil, can be 100 times more potent than fentanyl and is claiming increasingly more lives throughout the country. More often than not, these drugs are manufactured in China (the world’s largest source of illegal fentanyl), smuggled into the country or sent directly via the postal service, and distributed across the U.S.

The victims in this new wave of the opioid crisis are not just those struggling with addiction but can be often unsuspecting users, innocent bystanders and first responders.

Counterfeit prescription pills are made to look like common opiates like hydrocodone, oxycodone, Vicodin or even Xanax.

Unsuspecting buyers think they are purchasing normal prescription pills, but they are actually buying synthetic painkillers much more powerful than most street drugs.

Worse still, law enforcement and first responders throughout the country have been hospitalized after exposure from mere trace amounts of synthetic opioids. Even with the most vigilant officer or paramedic, inadvertent contact is a deadly threat every day.

Like many parts of the country, the opioid epidemic has devastated Champaign County, but local law enforcement and public health officials are doing everything we can to stem the tide of the crisis.

Opioid-related deaths in the county rose dramatically for 10 years before hitting a peak in 2017. Since that time, first responders and law enforcement have saved countless lives and reduced the overall number of deaths because they are well-trained and carry NARCAN, a medication to reverse opioid overdose.

Two years after the federal declaration of a public health emergency, our area continues to battle opioid abuse and addiction every day. The opioid crisis has brought tragedy to too many citizens, families and communities in this country, and Champaign County is no different.

To combat this epidemic, we must be honest about the danger posed. Men and women, young and old, and individuals of all races can fall victim to drug abuse and addiction. Everyone is at risk from the opioid crisis in our community.

Duane Northrup is the Champaign County coroner.