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December 1 is AIDS Awareness Sunday

Newly identified AIDS strain is not a cause for alarm

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Patients at Kakenge hospital in Kasai Central province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, near where blood samples for a recently-published HIV study were taken. (Photo by Larry Sthreshley)

LOUISVILLE — News outlets around the world recently reported the discovery of the first new subtype of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 20 years. But what you may not have noticed is the Presbyterian Mission Agency was credited in the study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes (Jaids).

Initially a new variant of HIV was alarming. But according to mission co-worker Larry Sthreshley, who’s serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and contributed to the study, it is not as concerning as news media may have initially portrayed it. Only a small number of people are infected with the newly identified strain, and current treatment will remain effective against it.

“We are always on alert that viruses may become resistant to treatment and morph into something else,” he said. “Thankfully, that was not the case here.”

Sthreshley has served for more than 30 years in the DRC and is the current country director for IMA World Health. The origin of HIV/AIDS has been traced to Congo so it is of interest to scientists to track the evolution of the disease in that country.

In the late 1990s Sthreshley was approached by a researcher working with Abbott Labs about providing some of those samples. He collected samples from mission hospitals for several years. One of those samples contained a new variant of HIV.

Abbott sent test kits for Sthreshley to distribute to church-run hospitals in Congo and Cameroon. Tests were a two-step process — first confirming the virus and then identifying the strain. The samples had more than one variant, which required a larger sample that needed to be kept cold and shipped in dry ice. Dry ice in the DRC is not readily available, so Sthreshley worked with the local brewery.

In 2019 UNAIDS Global HIV & AIDS statistics show there are 37.9 million people globally living with HIV, and 74.9 million people have become infected with HIV since the start of the epidemic. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018: 450,000 people were living with HIV.

Although there have been many advancements in the field of HIV/AIDS, there’s no cure as yet. Existing drugs aim to decrease the risk of transmission of the virus, and those have been very effective.

Although Sthreshley provided critical information to the HIV study, most of his professional life has been dedicated to developing and supporting primary health care programs that serve large populations in Congo. Often this work was in areas that experienced an Ebola outbreak.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has battled Ebola virus breakouts more than any other country in the world, with 10 of the 25 global outbreaks recorded there. Since the outbreak in 1995, Sthreshley has been involved with the response to three of the outbreaks. The current outbreak in the eastern portion of Congo is the largest the country has seen. Fortunately the numbers are dropping significantly.

Initially it was very hard to get this outbreak under control because the locals were skeptical of the realities of the disease. Some didn’t believe the disease actually existed or thought it was created by the government or healthcare workers to frighten them and keep them from voting. That pervasive fear caused some locals to attack treatment centers and kidnap and kill healthcare workers. The success earned from getting people vaccinated and two highly effective treatments is helping reduce people’s resistance to being treated as well as undertaking preventative measures.

By asking survivors to provide testimonials through churches and the media, the perception of the disease is changing.

“There are lot of lessons learned,” said Sthreshley. “We just hope they stay learned as opposed to being forgotten between now and the next outbreak.”

Both HIV and Ebola are diseases that cause ripples of fear to run down your spine, but according to Sthreshley in DRC, other diseases are responsible for more deaths.

“The message that always seems to surprise people is that Ebola and AIDS are actually minor diseases,” he said. “More children are dying from measles in Congo than from Ebola but you don’t hear about that. Just because you don’t hear about it doesn’t mean it has disappeared.”

He said he is grateful for the PCUSA’s commitment to Congo’s national healthcare system and prioritizing his work there.

Both Sthreshley and his wife Inge grew up as children of missionaries in Congo. His parents were Presbyterian missionaries who served in the two Kasaii provinces in the south-central region. Her parents were Methodist missionaries who served in Katanga province in the far southeastern section of the country.

Larry Sthreshley’s long experience in Congo as well as his academic training makes him a good choice for protecting the public health in DRC. He holds a doctorate in international health systems management from Tulane University, a master’s degree in public health from UCLA, and an undergraduate degree in public health from the University of North Carolina.

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