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A recently released report from Forward Analytics found that fentanyl is the No. 1 killer of people aged 25-54 in Wisconsin.

If fentanyl-related deaths were listed as a cause of death, in 2020, it would outpace the next cause of death – car accidents – by more than 2.5 times for people in that same age group.

Let that sink for in a moment.

Fentanyl is a problem that’s not only not going away, but it’s getting exponentially worse in Wisconsin.

“We have not seen the end of this epidemic,” says Gundersen Health System emergency medicine physician Chris Eberlein, M.D. “It continues to stress our healthcare systems, our providers and the community at large.”

Healthcare officials had hoped that the pandemic would’ve slowed the growth of fentanyl, but in fact, the opposite happened. New variations of the drug appeared, and the addictiveness was stronger than ever.

"You realize how potent it must be when they know that every time they use, they could die from it, and they're still drawn to it," Dr. Eberlein says.

The typical trend shows fentanyl overdoses happening to people in their 40s, but the addiction to the substance started well before that. Some people, Dr. Eberlein says, overdose shortly after addiction sets in, while for others, it may be years before it happens. One thing is for certain: the availability of Narcan in the community has given people another chance.

“These (numbers) would look drastically different if we didn’t have Narcan available,” he says. “I think you would have shifted that curve probably 15 years if Narcan wasn’t available.”

The healthcare system, he said, plays a role in stemming the tide of fentanyl use. Its mission is to continue to develop treatment for not only substance abuse, but mental health as well. The opioid epidemic is a byproduct of the ongoing mental health crisis, Dr. Eberlein says.

But addressing the issue cannot be left to just healthcare systems, which at Gundersen, has been a focus since 2010 with the formation of the Heroin Task Force. Rather, the entire community must be involved.

“We have to come together as a community and support each other, support our mental health resources, support healthier communities in general,” Dr. Eberlein says. “It’s been said that your lifespan is more related to your zip code than your genetics, so that tells you a lot about the importance of healthy communities we live in.”

Dr. Eberlein admits he’s an optimist and believes there will be some headway made on this issue in the next five or 10 years.

“I think we have somewhat started to turn the ship,” he says. “Things are still going up, but they’re not going up as fast as they had been, and in some communities, we’ve seen a leveling off.

“To change that is a long process,” he continued. “This is something that someone didn’t start today and die tomorrow. This is something we have to work on. Prevention will get us out of this, but prevention takes years.”

Dr. Eberlein is also hopeful that drug addiction treatments will improve.

“We have treatments for drug addiction, but we need better treatments We need more research going into this,” he says.

If any good has come from the situation, Dr. Eberlein said society, as a whole, has learned more about addiction as a disease, and as such, has done away with the stigma.

“In general, you’re not seeing the anger toward the addict that you saw in the past,” he says. “I think people have started to realize that it’s more of a disease process, and we have to treat the person as a patient, as a friend first.”

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