BALTIMORE -- State health officials say Maryland may experience more cases of infectious syphilis this year than any time since 1981, and some health officials say a concentration on the AIDS problem may be partly responsible.

The number of infectious syphilis cases has risen dramatically in Maryland this year, and most of the new cases are in the Baltimore area, said Dr. Ebenezer Israel, chief of the state's division of communicable diseases and epidemiology.

Federal health officials last week reported a 23 percent increase in syphilis cases in the United States this year, 8,274 cases compared with 6,725 in 1986.

Israel suggested that "with an explosion of interest and work with AIDS, perhaps less attention has been paid to syphilis" and its prevention.

"We've had to fight the fire, and our workers have been diverted from their normal prevention efforts," he said last week.

The state's new surge of the disease -- which, if untreated, can result in paralysis, brain damage and heart complications -- first became apparent last year when 451 cases were reported to the state, 127 more than in 1985.

In the first six months of this year, the state has reported 298 infectious syphilis cases, compared with 211 during the same period in 1986, according to Janelle Dixon, public health adviser for the state department of health.

The increases were also reflected in figures for most of the Washington area jurisdictions. Prince George's County had 19 cases in the first six months of 1986 and 48 this year; Howard County cases doubled this year to four, and in Anne Arundel County they increased from two to six. Montgomery County cases fell from five to two.

Baltimore, which had 280 cases in all of 1986, already has reported 190 cases.

"We're asking for increased federal funding to hire more workers so that the current outbreak will be brought under control," Israel said.

He could not say how much money will be sought. Usually, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control allots Maryland $400,000 a year for its work on sexually transmitted disease, he said.