While calls for more use of AIDS testing mount, health officials continue to be divided over whether the tests can help stem the epidemic.

At issue is whether people, once told that they are infected, will change their behavior. Will they tell their sex partners and take precautions? Or might they, in anger, sometimes knowingly infect others? Will uninfected people continue to act responsibly? Or will they gain a false sense of security?

Last week, at the first National Symposium on AIDS Prevention, held in Baltimore, it became clear that there are no easy answers to those questions.

"Public health benefits will accrue {from AIDS testing} only if behavior changes as a result of knowledge," said Dr. Walter R. Dowdle, deputy director of AIDS research at the Centers for Disease Control. "We assume a change is more likely with that knowledge than without, but, frankly, right now that's only an assumption."

The AIDS test finds evidence of prior exposure, in the form of antibodies to the AIDS virus, called HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). "It's an excellent test, one of the best we have for any infectious disease," Dowdle said. However, because it takes up to three months for antibodies to form, it can fail to detect an infection for several months after exposure.

The question raised at the conference was not so much whether the test is effective as whether any good comes of knowing who is a carrier and who is not.

For some groups of people, the answer seems to be a resounding no. The experience of some health educators has been that confirmed AIDS carriers often behave in riskier ways than they did before they tested positive for the HIV antibody. This is especially true of intravenous drug abusers. "The drug addicts who test seropositive really go wild, with lots of increased drug use and sexual acting-out behavior," said Edith Springer, a health counselor in New York City.

"The purpose of giving this test is to promote behavioral change, but in my experience with addicts it's had the opposite effect," she said. "The ones who test positive act out, and the ones who test negative think they have some sort of magic bullet. I think addicts are one population that should not be tested."

It is risky to assume that everyone is concerned about their health, Mildred Zeldes Solomon, an educational consultant from Newton, Mass., told the conference. "Pleasure or security or adventure may be more important than health for many people. This means we can't assume that facts alone will change behavior."

But some groups, particularly homosexual men, have responded well to knowledge about AIDS safety. Robin Fox, director of the Study to Help the AIDS Research Effort (SHARE) at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, studied the behavioral impact of AIDS testing in a group of 1,000 gay men. She reported that the counseling prior to testing, even more than the discovery of the test results, lessened her subjects' risk-taking behavior.

Two thirds of the men in the study, when given the option, decided to find out their antibody status, Fox said. But they were only slightly more likely than the other one third -- who chose not to know -- to reduce their numbers of sex partners and the number of times they engaged in unprotected anal intercourse.

Fox said that knowledge of the test results did affect sexual behavior, although the differences were relatively small.

These findings suggest that behavioral change depends less on knowledge of one's own antibody status than on the educational and counseling sessions that usually go along with testing.

"I've seen no convincing evidence that testing leads to behavioral changes any more than counseling and education do," said Dr. Nick Freudenberg, director of Programs in Community Health Education at the Hunter College School of Health Sciences in New York. "When decisions are made about what services to offer, I think we have to take that into account."

Being tested for AIDS antibodies also can carry a psychological cost, and that cost, experts said, might be highest for minorities. Members of minority groups might not understand -- because educational campaigns have not yet been directed at them -- what the test can and cannot do.

"When you tell a person of color that he is HIV positive," said a health counselor from San Francisco, "all he hears is that he has AIDS." In fact, an estimated 20 to 50 percent of HIV-positive people go on to develop AIDS.

The financial costs of testing also differ for different groups. In areas where HIV infection is rare -- such as premarital blood screenings in Topeka -- it would cost as much as $20,000 for each carrier who was found, said Dowdle of the CDC. But, he added, a test conducted in a venereal disease clinic in San Francisco, where the AIDS virus is relatively common, would cost just $80 per carrier found.

President Reagan has included marriage license applicants in the groups for whom he recommends routine AIDS testing. In his announcement Sunday, Reagan also supported routine testing for patients in federal clinics and hospitals, prisoners and immigrants.

"Routine" testing means the AIDS test is offered to everyone in these settings, but no one is required to submit to the test against his will.

"The strategy for the prevention of AIDS is the same as for any other infectious disease," Dowdle said. "That is, develop vaccines, develop prophylactic and therapeutic drugs, modify the environment, and modify the behavior."

For AIDS, Dowdle said, the only currently available strategy is the last: modifying high-risk behavior. But the question of whether an individualized risk profile, in the form of HIV antibody test results, is required to make that change, is still unanswered.