According to the stereotype, a portrait of life in American small towns shows a picture of cozy families, kindly neighbors and helpful friends.

But people with AIDS who live in those communities find little more than isolation and terror.

According to the National Commission on AIDS, an official advisory body to the White House and Congress, there is a new epidemic plaguing sufferers of the disease in rural U.S. communities: fear and bigotry.

Fanned by ignorance surrounding HIV infection and AIDS, friends, neighbors and even families turn on sufferers with hostility and discrimination.

Commenting on her investigations, commission member Belinda Ann Mason, a mother of two who was infected with the disease during a blood transfusion, said: "I have seen rural America at its warm, supportive best and at its close-minded, bigoted worst."

Although the epidemic continues to be most severe in urban areas, the number of AIDS cases diagnosed in rural towns across the country has risen by 37 percent in the last year, seven times faster than the 5 percent rate of increase in cities of more than 500,000.

In rural Georgia, for example, the number of cases tripled in the last two years, an increase attributed to the growth of crack cocaine use which has resulted in young women trading sex with multiple partners for drugs or money.

But, despite that growth, health care and human support systems are woefully inadequate, according to the commission, which described them as "unable to serve even their community's basic needs, let alone the increase in HIV."

The study, the third to be produced by the 15-member commission since it was set up in November 1988, also concludes that experimental drug-testing includes too few minorities, women and children.

But the report focused mainly on discrimination against AIDS victims by the general public and even by health-care workers.

Ronald L. Jerrell, 25, of Owensboro, Ky., population about 50,000, knows firsthand about that discrimination.

Infected with the disease, "probably through sexual intercourse" with another homosexual, four years ago, Jerrell said he was shunned by the townspeople and was "held at arm's length" by his friends.

"The difference between having cancer and having AIDS is that people bring you flowers and cards when you have cancer. When you have AIDS they don't even visit you," said Jerrell, whose AIDS has destroyed his immune system, causing an eye infection that has left him partially blind.

Jerrell's reaction was not to withdraw from society, but rather to fight by lobbying for more education about AIDS through the Washington-based group, the National Association of People with AIDS.

"Slowly my friends started to come back as I started to convince them that there was nothing to fear from someone who has AIDS," Jerrell said.

But other sufferers in small towns are not so lucky. They experience hostility and bigotry daily, the commission reported. Many lose their jobs: One restaurant manager in Kentucky was demoted to switchboard operator when his boss found out he had AIDS.

Commission members visited many communities in Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas -- where they found AIDS education virtually nonexistent -- and reported similar tales of "bigotry," including a man who was thrown out of church, people losing their jobs and apartments and even sufferers who were rejected by their families.

One man said the fear of being "found out" is so terrifying that he sneaks out to his mother's car at night, covers himself with a blanket and waits for his mother to come out at dawn to drive him many miles to another county where he can receive treatment anonymously.

In addition to its prevalence in rural society, the commission said, discrimination is also rife among medical workers. Many dentists and physicians refuse to treat people infected with HIV, apparently unaware that the virus, spread through blood and semen, is almost exclusively passed on through sex or needle-sharing by intravenous drug users, not by casual contact.

The commission called for a number of measures that could help relieve the problems identified in its report, including the provision of a comprehensive primary health care program, expanded AIDS education initiatives in rural areas and more commitment to improve drug-testing programs.

It also suggests expanding the National Health Service Corps, which sends doctors to rural areas, and other groups to help meet the need for primary health care for rural AIDS patients.