Gueckedou (Guinea) (AFP) - Life goes on for the people of the Ebola-hit Guinean city of Gueckedou, but their defiance masks widespread terror of the invisible menace stalking their dusty streets.
The southern city's 200,000 residents are coming to terms with living in the ground zero of west Africa's first outbreak of the highly contagious virus, which has killed more than 80 of their countrymen.
"Everyone is afraid of this disease, the people who aren't talking about it just as much as the people who are. Everyone is afraid. It's as if everyone is waiting for their turn to come," said Koin Barry, a petrol station employee.
"People here are describing this epidemic as divine retribution."
The medical aid charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) warned this week that poverty-hit Guinea is facing an Ebola epidemic "of a magnitude never before seen" as the nation's president appealed for calm amid a rising death toll.
Ebola has killed almost 1,600 people since it was first observed in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo but this is the first fatal outbreak in west Africa.
Liberia meanwhile has confirmed two cases and a suspected five more, while Sierra Leone is closely monitoring 15 people who attended a funeral in an area hit by the outbreak, according to the World Health Organization. Liberia and Sierre Leone neighbour Guinea.
The tropical virus leads to haemorrhagic fever, causing muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhoea and, in severe cases, organ failure and unstoppable bleeding.
Since January, Guinea health authorities have reported more than 127 suspected cases scattered across the country, but the vast majority are in the heavily-forested and remote south.
Miriam Sandouno, a 14-year-old pupil at the Patrice Lumumba school, recalled how her mother had taken her out of lessons when people first began talking about the virus.
During the month she was kept off, two of her friends died at their homes, she said.
"I said to my mother, even though I'm not going to school, I'm still going to die here at home if that's what God wants. So she told me to go back to lessons," she told AFP.
-- Severe bleeding --
Gueckedou's city centre was teeming with people this week, with shops and offices open for business and horse-drawn carts taking up the little space left by motorbike taxis on the streets.
Yet the constant to-ing and fro-ing of vehicles adorned with the MSF logo has shattered the veneer of normality.
Sitting in front of his business on a trunk road leading to the regional capital Nzerekore, a shopkeeper called Abdul watches the four-wheel drive trucks roar past.
"It's lucky that they are here, otherwise the entire population would disappear in this epidemic," he says.
MSF has set up two corrugated iron buildings surrounded by a tented village to treat and isolate the sick and test samples in a mobile laboratory.
Dozens of Guineans and foreigners are working in the 20-bed makeshift clinic, some dressed from head to toe in sealed biohazard suits with gloves, goggles, masks and boots.
The charity is also running sessions at the main hospital, teaching medical staff how to detect and treat the illness but also how to protect themselves from infection.
One class on Tuesday bombarded MSF staff with questions about how long the organisation is going to stay in Guinea.
"We couldn't do anything without you... We would never have known it was Ebola causing the fever here," a worker said.
They also complained that the conspicuous evacuation of patients to the MSF Ebola clinic was adding to residents' fears over the outbreak.
"All that we ask of our colleagues from MSF is that they stop sounding the ambulance siren every time... they transfer the victim. It's making people uneasy," a lab technician said.
On Wednesday the World Health Organization reported five new Ebola cases since the start of the week, saying that the death rate was 65 percent.
Humanitarian organisation Plan International said awareness of public health measures had become central to containing the outbreak, adding that dangerous misinformation was hampering the response.
"In affected areas, communities have witnessed horrific scenes of people dying with signs of bloody vomit and severe bleeding," it said in a statement.
"The severity of infection and associated symptoms, have also fuelled rumours as people are coming up with their own explanations behind sudden deaths."