All but seven of the states with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS were located in the south REUTERS

The counties suffering from the highest rates of HIV/AIDS are predominantly located in the South, according to an analysis of data from 43 states conducted by USA Today.

The finding upends an assumption, entrenched since the disease first emerged decades ago, that gay urban men are most likely to contract HIV/AIDS. Factors that prevail in Southern states such as poverty, lack of sexual education and unstable families appeared more likely to predict HIV/AIDS rates than sexual orientation.

The age when kids first become sexually active is pretty young in the Deep South, Harold Henderson, an HIV/AIDS expert at the University of Mississippi, told USA Today. That has a lot to do with the fact parents don't do a good job of [educating their kids about sex]. And if you happen to live in a broken home, with drug use and poverty involved, you may not be getting the parental supervision you need.

Income levels were closely correlated with HIV/AIDS rates, according to data compiled by Emory University's AIDSVu project. Among the counties with the highest rate of HIV/AIDS, average poverty rates registered at about 20 percent for Southern counties compared to 13 percent for the rest of the country. Black men and women were statistically more likely to be both impoverished and infected.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that HIV/AIDS is still stigmatized as a gay man's disease, according to Mississippi activist Cedric Sturdevant. Fearful of being ridiculed, people are not diagnosed until it is too late to take medications that drastically reduce the risk of transmitting the disease to others.

Mississippi, being a Bible Belt state, is homophobic, Sturdevant said. You don't want people to know you're homosexual, if that's the case. If you're heterosexual, and you get infected, you don't want people to put you in the category of being homosexual.

The study comes just over 30 years after the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention first reported cases of HIV/AIDS in June of 1981.

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