Officials for the first time on Wednesday released statistics painting a picture of fatal heroin overdoses in Chester County.

The county saw 24 overdose deaths last year, with victims ranging from 21 to 79 years old. Fourteen were men and 10 were women.

Perhaps most notably, 18 of the fatal overdoses –75 percent– involved both heroin and prescription drugs.

"One clear trend from these statistics is that prescription drug abuse is a gateway to a heroin overdose," Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan said in a statement.

"People start by using prescription drugs like oxycodone, then switch to heroin because it is cheaper and easier to obtain."

According to intelligence gathered by the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area strike force, a local-federal law enforcement partnership, heroin laced with the powerful opiate painkiller fentanyl has not yet been found in Chester County.

But task force figures showed that, following the 20-plus fentanyl-laced heroin-related deaths in Western Pennsylvania earlier this year, the tainted drug has been tracked to eastern Pennsylvania, including suburban Philadelphia.

In fact, authorities identified Philadelphia as "a leading source city for heroin" due to the purity and low price of the drug sold on its streets.

Of those arrested for heroin in the state that were not from Philadelphia, 80 percent hailed from one of the four suburban counties just outside the city, according to HIDTA statistics.

"The good news is that Chester County has taken a proactive and multifaceted approach to tackling this problem," Hogan said, highlighting enforcement crackdowns and the creation of a prescription drug drop box program.

He said the county is working with legislators to craft Good Samaritan laws encouraging users to call 911 if friends overdose.

The Chester County District Attorney's Office has also issued a $5,000 grant to help kick-start a local chapter of advocacy group Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education.

Chief John Narcise, of the Willistown Police Department in Chester County, issued a statement calling on officials to deal with the problem creatively and comprehensively.

"We cannot act like the problem is not coming to Chester County, because it is already here," he said.

Contact Alex Wigglesworth at 215-854-2305 or Follow @phila_lex on Twitter.
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