NEW YORK -- The American Public Health Association is mobilizing its 50,000 members to press the Bush administration to normalize relations with Vietnam so U.S. health specialists could help combat the severe problems in that country.

"It's time to close the festering wound" inflicted by the Vietnam War, said Myron Allukian Jr., who completed a one-year term as APHA president at the group's annual meeting here. Allukian, a former Navy dentist who served with the Marines in Vietnam in 1965, is the first Vietnam veteran to head the health assocation. He termed the embargo forbidding U.S. trade and aid to Vietnam "a moral outrage" because it hurts children the most.

The newly formed Vietnam Caucus within the APHA unanimously voted to press President Bush to lift the embargo, send researchers to Vietnam to investigate the impact of the herbicide Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people and send humanitarian aid to Vietnam as part of a general normalization between the U.S. and its former enemy.

"It's 99 percent certain" that the caucus's recommendation will formally become APHA policy through a resolution to be voted on at the next annual meeting in November 1991, Allukian predicted.

James O. Mason, assistant secretary of health for the Department of Health and Human Services, said he could not commit himself on the embargo issue but had "an open mind" regarding the recommendation to send U.S. health specialists to Vietnam to investigate the possible impact of Agent Orange."I'd have to see the protocol," Mason said in declaring he would need to know how APHA intends to proceed with the study in Vietnam before reaching a judgment. Mason has been criticized by some public health experts for his steadfast insistence that studies have failed so far to prove that the military's widespread use of the defoliant impaired the health of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam or their children. Agent Orange was used to kill jungle growth. The herbicide contains the deadly poison dioxin, implicated by many health specialists in cases of cancer and birth defects.

Allukian predicted that a new study by an independent group in Vietnam would help settle the controversy.

Ralph Timperi Jr., assistant commissioner of public health for Massachussetts, is chairman of the Vietnam Caucus of about 80 APHA members whose representatives unanimously called for normalizaion of U.S.-Vietnam relationships.

Timperi, who was twice wounded while serving as a Army rifle platoon leader in Vietnam, told the caucus that health professionals have an obligation to help solve health problems anywhere in the world.

Erwin Randolph Parson, a specialist on post-traumatic stress disorder among Vietnam veterans and a member of the APHA Vietnam Caucus, told delegates that "collective guilt" about the Vietnam War "is the heavy weight" that must be moved to bring the two countries together. He said lifting the embargo and taking other steps to help the Vietnamese would relieve the burden not only on the Vietnamese people but on Americans as well.

Allukian said he will continue to press for normalization and other measures as a member of the APHA executive board.