By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi
The row over the number of HIV-infected people in India is diverting attention from the main issues posed by the disease, the United Nations says.
India says its awareness drive is getting through
Dr Nafis Sadik, UN special envoy on HIV/Aids in the Asia-Pacific region, criticised the dispute over numbers.
She was speaking ahead of a key Aids meeting in New York on Thursday.
In April, an Aids experts said India had overtaken South Africa as the nation with most infections, a claim strongly disputed by Delhi.
Dr Sadik told the BBC on the eve of the high-level UN General Assembly meeting on HIV/Aids: "In no country are the real numbers known because people who could have been exposed to infection do not all come forward for tests, either because of ignorance or fear."
Health ministers and officials from 124 countries will be attending the meeting, including Indian Health Minister, Anbumani Ramadoss.
'Out of control'
UN agency UNAids says India has 5.1m adults and children infected with HIV - giving it the second highest number of infections after South Africa.
But in April, senior Aids expert Richard Feachem said India had overtaken South Africa.
Mr Feachem, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, said official statistics on the disease in India were wrong and that the epidemic was "out of control" in the country.
The CIA has separately forecast there could be 20m Indians with HIV/Aids by 2010.
"Whether its 4.5m or 5.1m HIV cases is not the real issue," Dr Sadik said.
"The real problem is that HIV is in the general population in some states and if strong measures are not taken it can become a generalised epidemic."
'Denial and silence'
Dr Sadik said the "main and most serious issues" still remained "denial and silence," stigma and discrimination of affected people, and a shortage of testing and counselling facilities.
"[Tackling these] needs strong public opinion for the whole population so that individuals learn how to protect themselves," she said.
Stigma and discrimination remain central issues, the UN says
Dr Sadik, who used to head the UN's Population Fund (UNFPA), said governments in the subcontinent were becoming more "open minded and pragmatic" about the disease.
India said last month that only 28,000 people became infected in 2004, compared to 520,000 in 2003.
Health officials said the slowdown showed the success of its health awareness programmes.
Aids campaigners who consistently claim a higher infection rate dismissed these figures, and Science Minister Kapil Sibal admitted there was room for error.