VENEREAL DISEASE is not exactly a staple of general conversation, and understandably so; as an issue of our times, it lacks popular appeal. But it is also a subject we turn away from at peril to public health. The latest report from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta shows that more than a million cases of gonorrhea were reported last year; it is estimated that another 1.7 million cases occurred that were not reported. The reported number alone is an increase of 254 per cent since 1965 and the highest number since the U.S. Public Health Service began keeping venereal-disease records more than a half century ago. The numbers for syphilis are equally distressing. There were 76,736 cases in the last fiscal year, and a conservative estimate of untreated cases is 360,000.

So, the topic has to be discussed - if only because not discussing it appears to be part of the problem. Obviously, there are other reasons for the spread of such diseases, among them our post-'60s sex mores. But it is late in the day for sermons. The best hope lies in public education - in the widest possible dissemination of the harsh, incontrovertible facts.

Phyllis Franck and Diana S. Hart, writing recently in the Outlook section of this newspaper, quoted one doctor as saying the venerreal-disease problem has passed the stage of epidemic and deserves the far more dire designation of "hyper-endemic." The cost of untreated venereal cases apparently far exceeds our federal expenditure for control of the diseases. The authors of the Outlook article offered the example of pelvic inflammatory disease, a frequent complication among women with untreated gonorrhea. The condition is said to have affected 22 million women last year, accounted for 1.2 million hospital days and cost society $229 million. Victims of syphilitic psychosis cost the taxpayer an estimated $60 million. Meanwhile, in the last fiscal year the federal budget for the control of syphilis and gonorrhea was $18 million.

It is fair to say that if these diseases were not beset with all sorts of condemnatory connotations, somebody would be mounting a dramatic and appealing campaign to stamp them out. But, somehow, for VD the March-of-Dimes approach doesn't seem quite right. There is a prevailing prejudice, not supported by the evidence, that "nice" people don't get such diseases. In fact, there is not immune social group, even though urban youngsters aged 20 to 24 are the most susceptible. Washington's rate is among the highest in the nation. And while this may strike some people as cause for local shame, it strikes us somewhat more forcefully as an argument for action to deal forthrightly with a serious public health problem.

Solutions will cost money, for not only public education but also treatment facilities. One of the areas where more education is needed is among private physicians, notorious for treating their own patients who come in with venereal diseases and then not reporting the cases to the public health authorities. That is how the myth is perpetuated that "nice" people don't get VD; when cases are kept secret from health authorities, it often means that untreated partners go on infecting others.

Schools and religious organizations should speak up - and take responsibility for those in their care. Who still believes that not talking about sexual problems with teenagers will somehow keep them from sexual experimentation? Those concerned about tempering young people's inclinations for sexual experimentation should tell them what one doctor is quoted as saying in the Franck/Hart article: "The broader the scope of sexual contacts, the more likely one is to catch something. This is not to moralize. But everyone should be aware of what can happen and how to treat a problem if it develops." That's what responsible public education on this tormenting topic should have as its premise.