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Heroin use, overdose and deaths increase

poisonHeroin is cheap and easy to obtain, and youth in Central New York are not getting the message that the drug is dangerous. "They don't really believe that it's as dangerous as it is. They are not heeding the warnings, unfortunately," says Michele Caliva, RN, administrative director of the Upstate New York Poison Center.

The poison center fielded 29 calls about heroin, including 14 about overdoses, in 2009. Just four years later in 2013, the center fielded 150 calls about heroin, including 84 about overdoses. The number of heroin deaths in Onondaga County climbed from two in 2010 to 24 in 2013.

Listen to this interview

The heroin deaths of 24 people in Onondaga County made news in the Syracuse Post-Standard, but the suspected heroin overdose death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman garnered international headlines in early February.

Caliva says when synthetic drugs became a problem in this region more than a year ago, "the folks who distribute heroin had to stay competitive, so they dropped the prices to compete. So heroin is accessible, and it's cheap."

People suffering the effects of heroin are coming through hospital emergency departments in Central New York "in great numbers," she says.  They are male and female, young and old, wealthy and poor, educated and not.

Some overdose because they underestimate the potency of the heroin they smoke, sniff or inject. Others may have reactions to the other substances dealers mix with the drug.

Nicholas Nacca, MD, a clinical assistant of emergency medicine at Upstate, says he has seen heroin patients who run into trouble because heroin slows the respiratory and central nervous systems. Their friends believe they are just resting when they are really in need of emergency intervention. This is how some of the deaths occur.

He also recalls a teen girl he cared for after she tried to commit suicide. "The reason she wanted to kill herself was because she got caught stealing a gun from her grandfather's case to pay off a heroin debt."

Many of the youth who get hooked on heroin begin experimenting with opioids they find in prescription drugs in the medicine cabinets of their parents or friends, Nacca says. Many of the older people who try heroin do so because they become hooked on prescription painkillers and then find heroin to be a cheaper alternative.

Listen to the HealthLink on Air interview about heroin

Read the syracuse.com story about heroin

Learn more about the Upstate New York Poison Center