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While there have been relatively few American Indian AIDS cases so far, a state AIDS surveillance official suggests that tribal isolation may have only delayed the arrival - not avoided it.

Tribes need to prepare for AIDS - and to learn acceptance for its victims, several people said during a three-day Indian AIDS conference sponsored by the Indian Health Service, the National Institutes of Health and the Office of AIDS Research. About 350 people attended.Karen Edge, a state AIDS surveillance coordinator, said she is unsure why the number of AIDS cases among Indians is still relatively low compared with blacks, whites and Hispanics. But she said the full effect of AIDS didn't hit New Mexico until several years after it hit the East and West coasts.

"So it could be that we are just seeing the beginning of the epidemic in the Native American community - or hopefully that prevention education is working," Edge said.

But she said Indians need to know "that AIDS is occurring in even the most remote parts of the state and that there is no place that is safe."

As of last month, there had been 818 cases of Indian AIDS nationwide. In New Mexico, 31 Indians had been diagnosed with AIDS, 25 of them men. There were no figures on pre-AIDS patients who test HIV-positive.

Some Indians have expressed fear about taking tests for the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS, not only because they fear the results but because friends or relatives work at the hospitals and clinics that offer the tests.

Many conference participants said AIDS remains a taboo on their reservations.

"There is a lot of denial among American Indians. There is still the belief that it is not here, not us; it's out there, in cities. It's a gay, white man's disease," said Rachel Chicharello, director of the AIDS division at the Indian Health Service office in Albuquerque.

Florence Chavez, an Albuquerque Indian Hospital health educator, told of one Indian who left his northern New Mexico pueblo because he was gay and his family asked him to go. He died of AIDS in a city hospital, she said, and when his friends brought his body home for burial, tribal police blockaded the road and refused to let them pass.

"This is what ignorance does," she said. "There was a lot of turmoil, and they finally let them in, but when they got to the house, his own sisters rejected him. They wouldn't help prepare the body.

"Are we going to reject our own loved ones?" she asked.

Another complaint aired here was that tribal leaders, almost none of whom attended the conference, do not consider AIDS education a priority.