By Benjamin Yount | ILLINOIS NEWS NETWORK:
Opioid overdoses in Illinois killed nearly twice as many people as car crashes last year, but public health officials and addiction specialists say most people either don't know or don't care.
Illinois Department of Public Health Director Nirav Shah said that families of addicts and law enforcement are starting to wake up to the crisis. But they say there are still too many people in Illinois who think drug addictions is only the users' problem.
"Fully 80 percent of individuals who find themselves dealing with a heroin addiction got their start on a legitimate prescription from a doctor," Shah said. "So we have to think about the stigma attached to this crisis. And we have to wonder if that's part of the reason why, up until very recently, people wanted to sweep it under the rug."
The Illinois Department of Transportation's data show that 1,078 people died in car wrecks in Illinois in 2016. Shah said IDPH's numbers show that 1,946 died from opioid overdoses.
Natalie Thukkaram with the Soft Landings treatment center in Naperville said that people perceive the two causes of death differently.
"There is a stigma that surrounds addiction," Thukkaram said. "Many people don't understand addiction. They see it as a moral choice, as a poor choice that someone is making. So there is a stigma around substance abuse and substance dependence in general."
In other words, people feel bad for accident victims. They don't feel bad for drug users.
GET NEWS HEADLINES SENT DAILY TO YOUR INBOX Enter email address Sign up Shah said education is the key, and not just educating people about the danger of opioids, but also teaching people to see addiction as a disease that's no different than diabetes or cancer.
"Addiction is not about weakness or moral failure, or any of those things," Shah said. "Addiction is really about someone grappling with a brain disease."
The health department said it should have the opioid death numbers for 2017 sometime after the New Year.