DAKAR, SENEGAL -- A virus that causes people to bleed from their ears and pops open blood vessels has spread from remote tropical forests in Guinea to the West African country's teeming capital.
It has hopped the border to Liberia and is suspected in more than 90 deaths in an outbreak Doctors Without Borders has called "unprecedented." It is almost always deadly, and there is no vaccine or treatment.
Is it time to panic?
The answer from health workers responding to an Ebola outbreak in West Africa that began last month is a qualified "No."
So although health officials try to avoid creating hysteria, they are also trying to make sure that people living in affected areas watch for symptoms in themselves or others, avoid contact with people who are ill and suspend burial practices that involve touching the dead.
"You probably couldn't get Ebola if you went to Conakry now if you tried," said Daniel Bausch, director of virology at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit in Lima, Peru, referring to the capital of Guinea.
Ebola is passed through bodily fluids — blood, saliva, sweat — of people showing symptoms. That's important: The disease can incubate in people for up to 21 days before they show symptoms, but the infected person cannot pass on the disease during that period.
Medical experts point out that because the symptoms are so severe (internal and external bleeding, high fever, muscle pain, vomiting) very few people are likely to keep in contact with someone who exhibits them.
As is typical with Ebola, many of the people who get infected are health workers caring for the sick.
Elvis N'Daw, a law student in Conakry, said that while people were taking precautions, there was little panic in the city.
N'Daw says he is washing his hands more frequently; others are rinsing their children off with a bleach solution before and after school. But people are still out and about, he said.
"Everybody is going about their business," said Alpha Ba, a taxi driver in the capital, noting he was weaving through normal traffic as he spoke on the phone.
Yet the number of cases has been steadily rising, and with it the reminders in the news media of the horrific symptoms of Ebola and that it kills up to 90% of the people it infects.
As of Saturday, medical tests had confirmed 54 cases of Ebola in Guinea and two in Liberia, according to World Health Organization. There are another 107 suspected cases, the vast majority of those in Guinea. Eighty-six people have died in Guinea and seven in Liberia; another two people who may have contracted the virus in Guinea have been buried in Sierra Leone.
Residents of the Mali capital of Bamako took to the streets in anger over reports that several people suspected of having the disease were being held in isolation in their neighborhood. Anger also flared in southern Guinea, where people attacked a health center that was treating patients with Ebola.
Senegal has closed its border with Guinea. Morocco has stepped up border controls, and France is asking doctors and hospitals to be on alert for signs of the disease.
On Friday morning, emergency medical personnel met an Air France plane arriving in Paris from Conakry after flight attendants found vomit in one of the plane's bathrooms. Airline spokesman Cedric Landais said passengers and crew were released after none showed signs of fever.
While some of this panicked reaction may be unavoidable, health officials say much of it is unnecessary. The World Health Organization, for instance, is not recommending any travel restrictions because they tend to be ineffective.
Gregory Hartl, a spokesman with the U.N. organization in Geneva, insisted the outbreak was not particularly unusual when compared to others. Doctors Without Borders maintains that the disease is rarely found in a wide area.
The international community has gotten fairly good at containing such outbreaks, bringing in protective gear for health workers, isolating the sick and tracking down every person those infected have come into contact with, says John O'Connor of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which has a team in Guinea.
"This outbreak isn't different from previous outbreaks," Hartl said.