Increased heroin overdoses, babies born addicted and HIV cases on the rise from shared needles; the heroin epidemic sweeping the nation has not skipped over the Johnstown region.
“Heroin is a major problem in Cambria County,” says Cambria County Coroner Jeffrey Lees. “We are ranked third by population in the state of Pennsylvania, and that’s a number we shouldn’t be proud of. Heroin and drug addiction is in all of our communities. Without the use of Narcan, I would need a much larger morgue.”
Conemaugh Health System recently launched a series of public service announcements, intended to increase awareness of the stark reality of the high costs of using this drug.
“The first message is to just not try heroin in the first place,” says Amy Bradley, Director of Marketing Communications for Conemaugh Health System. “The spot features a number of people including the coroner, the D.A., an emergency room physician and a mother who lost her son to addiction, pleading with viewers to not try heroin – not even once!”
“Some people think they’re just using it once at a party and it just takes over their life because their body chemistry changes,” says Dr. Jeanne Spencer, Family Medicine physician and Program Director of Conemaugh’s Family Medicine Residency Program.
“It’s very important for everyone to know that it only takes one time,” agrees Dr. Matt Perry, Regional Emergency Medicine Medical Director for Conemaugh Health System. “Narcotics and opiates shut down your respiratory drive. Patients simply stop breathing and most times they have no one there to help them.”
The second ad talks about the dangers of using shared needles. Cambria County has been identified by the Centers for Disease Control as being at high risk for an HIV explosion.
“In order to inject heroin, obviously you need needles,” says Dr. Spencer, who also serves as clinical director of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Clinic at Conemaugh. “If one person with HIV or hepatitis C shares a needle, it is incredibly easy to share the disease with another person.”
The use of needles can also lead to dangerous infections. “I’ve seen some of the saddest cases with people with horrendous infections from the injection drug use,” adds Dr. Spencer. “I’ve seen young people in severe heart failure because they have horrible infections in their heart valves. We’ve seen people with debilitating back pain from infections in their spine and unfortunately some of these infections we just can’t treat.”
The two public service announcements, produced by Wix Pix Productions, were a collaborative effort of Conemaugh Health System, the Cambria County District Attorney and Coroner’s Office and the newly created Cambria County Drug Coalition.
“We’re talking about something that affects one in four Pennsylvanians, so statistically speaking, we’re all at risk of being touched by this epidemic,” says Ronna Yablonski, Executive Director of the Coalition. “It is devastating lives and families. As a community we are coming together and saying it’s time; it’s time that we make a difference. It is time that we come together.”
Also underway is production of a half hour video that will further explore the heroin epidemic. That video will be made available to school districts and other community organizations.
To watch the Heroin Public Service Announcements, log on to www.conemaugh.org.redesign.in10sitybeta.net/heroinPSA.