NAPERVILLE, Ill. (WLS) --DuPage County officials are warning the public about the dangers of heroin and fentanyl following a recent spike in deaths associated with the powerful drugs.
"I didn't plan on being a heroin addict," said Darek Horan, a recovering heroin addict who knows all too well the dangers of heroin. "Someone offered me a bag and I unfortunately tried it and that opened the gates of hell for me."
Now in recovery, the 22-year-old is among those hooked on the drug as officials declare a heroin crisis in DuPage County.
"Never before has heroin prevention been more important than it is today here in DuPage County," DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin said.
At a Wednesday press conference, officials said they are especially concerned that the proliferation of fentanyl - a synthetic opiate stronger than heroin - that is being sold across the Chicago area. The drug can be mislabeled or packaged to look like other drugs, such as OxyContin or Xanax.
"Users may not even know that they are taking this powerful and deadly drug," DuPage County Coroner Richard Jorgensen said.
The county has seen a recent spike in deaths associated with heroin and heroin mixed with fentanyl, a powerful opiate sometimes given to cancer patients which can be 100-times stronger than morphine. It's also being packaged to look like other drugs like OxyContin and Xanax.
"We will continue to address these troubling increases by stepping up our public health efforts," said Karen Ayala, executive director, DuPage County Health Dept.
According to the county's coroner, so far this year there have already been 36 heroin and fentanyl deaths in DuPage County, with 70 percent of the victims are under the age of 29. In 2015, when there were 43 heroin related deaths all year. In 2014, there were 33 deaths and 46 the year before that.
"So those are people dying of heroin or other opiate drugs who can't buy a beer legally. And that's disturbing to me," said Dr. Richard Jorgensen, DuPage County Coroner.
County authorities say their Narcan program, which allows individuals without medical training to administer the drug to overdose victims, has saved 64 people this year alone.
DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said that anytime there is an overdose death, law enforcement will work to identify and prosecute those who supplied the fatal dose of drugs.
"People need to know that there is a price to pay for supplying potentially killer doses of heroin, fentanyl and other dangerous narcotics and that price could be up to 60 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections," Berlin said.
Tim Ryan, the founder and executive director of A Man in Recovery, is on the front line of the county's drug war. He lost his oldest son to heroin.
"It's nationwide. This is not an epidemic, it's a pandemic," Ryan said.
Horan considers himself lucky and has been clean for four months.
"It's not easy but it's well worth it. I've seen too many lost to this disease and I'm sick of it," he said.
As part of their multi-pronged approach, officials said they will continue to offer services and programs to drug users to help break the cycle of drug addiction.