Three of four adult Americans now know that the AIDS virus is transmitted through sexual contact, and 81 percent support federally funded research to find a cure for the deadly disease, a new poll shows.

The findings demonstrate that although public education programs may be working, more attention should be focused on people at high risk for contracting AIDS, said Steven Steiber, who oversaw the poll conducted by SRI Gallup.

The telephone poll of 1,000 adults was conducted in October 1987. Its margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.

The survey found that one in 16 adult Americans, or 6 percent, personally knew an AIDS victim -- a 50 percent increase since October 1986, when a similar poll was conducted.

"This jump in personal exposure to AIDS is statistically significant and likely is behind the increased public support for AIDS research," said Steiber.

There is no cure for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which destroys the body's ability to fight disease. The AIDS virus is spread by sexual contact and sharing contaminated syringes or needles. AIDS is not spread by casual contact.

SRI Gallup, a partnership between the Gallup Organization of Princeton, N.J., and Selection Research Inc. of Lincoln, Neb., specializes in research for the medical industry.

Only 12 percent of those surveyed said they don't know how AIDS is transmitted, down from 16 percent in 1986. "What I find somewhat disturbing," Steiber said, "is that people who appear to be at risk tend not to know quite as much about the disease."

For example, he said, 16 percent of the single adults polled didn't know how the deadly disease is transmitted, along with 18 percent in a "less affluent" category.

"It's mainstream America that has gotten the message," Steiber said, "but it hasn't permeated to all levels of society."