The UF community is working to understand the Ebola virus as it continues to spread through West Africa.

Students in the Health in Africa Working Group (HIA) and the UF Center for African Studies will be focusing their research on the Ebola outbreak this year.

This fall, the group added about 30 undergraduate students to its graduate research team.  

Sharon Abramowitz, an assistant professor of anthropology and African studies, said the group, founded in 2012, has rapidly put together an organizational structure and communications with students, including a wiki page that is the compilation of their research.

“The interest and passions concerning the Ebola outbreak are really strong among the undergraduate population,” Abramowitz said.

Ebola Virus Disease is transmitted from wild animals to humans and is often fatal, according to the World Health Organization. Once infected, humans can spread the virus through bodily fluids.

Symptoms of the Ebola virus include fatigue, headaches, diarrhea, vomiting and impaired organ function.

The 2014 outbreak began in March and is most severely affecting the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. This is the largest outbreak of Ebola since the discovery of the virus in 1976. 

There are no confirmed cases of Ebola in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC released precautions for universities with students traveling to and from Ebola affected areas. 

“While Ebola poses little risk to the U.S. general population, clinicians are advised to be alert for signs and symptoms of Ebola in patients who have a recent (within 21 days) travel history to countries where the outbreak is occurring or have had contact with a person infected with Ebola,” the CDC said in its Advice for Colleges, Universities, and Students about Ebola in West Africa. 

Ira Longini, Ph.D., a UF professor in the department of biostatistics in the colleges of Public Health and Health Professions and Medicine, is on a team of researchers studying the spread of Ebola. 

“We would assume that the U.S. would have sufficient capacity to test people and treat them. We would not expect any real transmission in the U.S.,” Longini said in a press release. 

The students in HIA are investigating the medical, socio-cultural, political and economic impacts of the outbreak on affected countries. HIA aims to understand the causes, context and source of the Ebola virus. 

“I have never done this before, but I think that these topics specifically are a really great opportunity for faculty and students to interact regarding these issues,” Abramowitz said.

Some students in HIA are pursuing a minor in health disparities in society. Trysh Travis, an undergraduate coordinator for women’s studies, oversees this new minor that has only been offered for a year.

Travis said this minor will help UF provide a diverse workforce and a new way of thinking.

“There’s a natural link between thinking about health care inequities and health care justice in the United States and thinking about it in the larger context of a global outbreak,” Travis said. “That’s where the interest in the Ebola outbreak came from, I think.”

The group is considered an interdisciplinary research endeavor and is supported by a government grant given to the Center for African Studies at UF, with a grant that  aims to help students join and discuss current research.

They are seeking out additional faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students interested in being involved in their research. HIA will be hosting a faculty discussion on the Ebola outbreak Oct. 8. The location is not yet determined.

[A version of this story ran on page 1 on 9/23/2014 under the headline "UF students conduct research on Ebola virus"]