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Is the opioids crisis losing its urgency?

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Mike Desmond
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WBFO News
It was a sparsely attended public meeting at Maryvale High School.

This time, the public meeting was at Maryvale High School, but the topic was the long, slow slog against the social damage and deaths of the continuing opioids crisis.

There's a long history of efforts against drugs in Cheektowaga, symbolized Thursday night by Police Lt. Brian Gould in the front row. Despite the toll taken in Buffalo's suburbs, the meeting sponsored by Assemblymember Monica Wallace was attended by a small crowd and few students.

However, speakers were there to make sure everyone who attended knew there is help available -- to addicts and families -- and how to get it. They also learned the medical system is learning how many other health problems spin off, from hepatitis C to addicted infants of addicted mothers.

Erie County Health Commissioner Dr. Gale Burstein put up the big charts showing how more and more of the people who have become addicted to the drugs are younger, outnumbering the addicts among the baby boomers. Burstein said the push has to continue.

"To have events like this to raise awareness, so that people understand that this is a chronic disease of the brain<: she said. "It's not bad behavior. They aren't bad people that are afflicted with this and that there is effective treatment and that is available in our community, often times within 24 hours after calling for an appointment to get care and start the road to recovery."

Maryvale Schools Superintendent Joseph D'Angelo talked about health classes taught in conjunction with Western New York United Against Drug and Alcohol Abuse. He knows there are students in his schools with drug problems and he keeps his fingers crossed none will die.

"Won't have to cross your fingers so much if you're proactive and we're trying to be proactive in how we attack this," D'Angelo said. "You can't expect that it doesn't exist in the community and it's not a problem because it is. We offer some comprehensive drug and alcohol programming to our students here, through Western New York United and through our health classes, hoping to address the issue."

Erie County has run a strenuous program against drugs, mixing education with assistance getting treatment and getting family members of drug victims to tell the public what they went through, as Debra Smith did. Smith spoke about what opioids meant to her son. He died of an overdose, after starting on prescription drugs.

Craig Meyers said he came because he knows families hit by fatal overdoses.

"When it hits you, then you realize that until it hits you, possibly, and they don't realize that, how close it is to them," the father of two children said. "There's families here in the district I have friends that have lost kids and it's a tough thing. I can't imagine that happening to me."

Wallace noted that more than 91 Americans die from opioid-related overdoses per day—exceeding deaths due to car crashes, gun violence and murder. In Erie County, opioid deaths decreased from 301 in 2016 to 268 in 2017.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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