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Larry Sthreshley: On the front lines in the battle to stop Ebola

PC(USA) mission co-worker has been a constant presence since the first outbreak

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

A nurse in Bulape cares for patients during a previous Ebola outbreak. The protective gear he is wearing was provided by IMA World Health, and similar equipment was sent to all the health facilities in North Ubangi, close to where the recent outbreak occurred. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE – The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has battled Ebola virus breakouts more than any other country in the world, with eight of the 25 global outbreaks recorded there. Since the first outbreak in 1995, Presbyterian mission co-worker Larry Sthreshley has worked on the front lines of the fight to crush the deadly epidemic and save lives.

In addition to serving as a mission co-worker for more than 20 years in DRC, Sthreshley is the current country director for IMA World Health there. He is the author of a widely-circulated IMA report on containing Ebola outbreaks in the DRC.

For Sthreshley it began on Saturday, April 29, 1995 when he received a radio call from the Baptist hospital of Vanga reporting several deaths from what seemed to be a contagious disease in the neighboring town of Kikwit. The hospital requested urgent barrier materials to protect its workers. They reached out to him knowing his team had experience moving emergency drugs and supplies throughout the country. Knowing what groups had funds for such emergencies, he was able to send the needed materials on a Mission Aviation Flight. This was the first response from any organization to the emerging Ebola virus.

Sthreshsley was concerned about the potential for a large-scale epidemic and contacted the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. The CDC sent a 40-page fax of the most likely possibilities.

On Monday, May 1, Sthreshley was sitting at the first general meeting on the outbreak, called by the DRC’s government. He said the discussion was chaotic and people were beginning to panic. The head of the European Union approached Sthreshley and if they could jointly offer logistical services to the government to provide a more orderly response. Because of the quick response and coordinated efforts, the epidemic was declared over with 317 total cases with a death rate of 88 percent.

There would be seven more outbreaks in DRC, the most recent in April of this year.

Just the mention of the Ebola virus sends chills down most people’s spines. Formerly known as Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever, it has a range of symptoms including fever, headache, muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss and bleeding, usually from the eyes.

In his report for IMA, Sthreshley wrote, “Prior to the first Ebola outbreaks in DRC, Congo looked like a post conflict country, with a weak health care system and a depleted infrastructure: A situation ripe for a rampant epidemic. Despite these challenges, all seven outbreaks were controlled relatively quickly in comparison to other Ebola outbreaks in Africa.”

In the same report, on behalf of IMA, Sthreshley’s Ebola experiences provided several lessons to both DRC and other countries hoping to better prepare to respond to epidemics like Ebola. He said communities must prepare. “Short of an effective vaccine or looming treatment, Ebola remains a looming threat for which governments and churches should better prepare.”

Recommendations include strengthening health systems to better respond to epidemics through targeted workforce training, building a proactive supply chain, strengthening health information systems, assessing health system breakdowns during and after the epidemic and effectively and proactively engaging faith based health facilities, houses of worship and networks.

“There have been more outbreaks of Ebola in Congo than any other country so we always work under the assumption that it will come again, and prepare the health facilities we assist to ready for it,” he said.

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 and her parents were Methodist missionaries who served in Katanga province in the far southeastern section of the country.

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.

The Sthreshleys are the parents of two children Lisa and Michael. Lisa was born at the Presbyterian-supported Good Shepherd Hospital in Congo.

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