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Series: The Opioid Epidemic In Wisconsin

Opioid overdoses kill hundreds of Wisconsinites every year, amid a nationwide surge in painkiller and heroin abuse that's been building since the turn of the century. Opioids are a category of pain relief drugs that include long-known substances like morphine and heroin, but also powerful synthetic pharmaceuticals like hydrocodone and fentanyl. Years of widespread opioid prescriptions helped initiate the crisis, and the increasing cheap cost of these drugs fueled the spread of abuse in rural, suburban and urban communities alike. All levels of government are mobilizing to address opioid abuse, and like many states, Wisconsin is adopting policies that focus on public health approaches over emphasizing criminalization. As the contours of this epidemic continues to shift, so do efforts to contain and reverse it among health care providers, law enforcement and community organizations.
 
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Overdoses from opioids are on the rise in Wisconsin, including in Milwaukee. The city's health commissioner, Bevan Baker, leads a new city-county task force focusing on the crisis and is seeking help from both policymakers and physicians.
Law enforcement officers, emergency medical workers and lab technicians are trained to minimize their exposure to dangerous substances. The increasing use of powerful opioids — which are dangerous to inhale or even touch in very small amounts — is adding unpredictability to these risks.
Toxicology labs like the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene are working to keep up with these unfamiliar opioids so law enforcement and health officials can better understand their impact and prevent their spread.
Synthetic opioids are a powerful class drugs, and users can fatally overdose on them. As these substances become more common, public health workers are grappling with the difficulties of tracking their spread.
Novel opioids pose dangers to the first responders and lab technicians who deal with the aftermath of overdose deaths and drug-related arrests.
A diverse array of potent synthetic drugs are becoming more prominent in the opioid crisis, creating difficulties for medical investigators and public health officials.
As more people die of overdoses — sometimes after unknowingly using highly potent opioids — public health officials are also struggling for clarity.
As more and more Wisconsinites die of opioid overdoses, public and private toxicology labs are ground zero for understanding an ever-evolving mix of illicit drugs.
Over the course of 2016, Richland County in southwestern Wisconsin had five drug overdose deaths, one of which involved a synthetic opioid. This latter case startled the county coroner's office.
Medication-assisted treatment tackles substance use disorders by combining behavioral therapy like counseling with a prescription medicine.