HOLMES AND WASHINGTON COUNTIES - Friday was World AIDS Day. And the local health department called attention to the benefit of early diagnosis.

"With early diagnosis, individuals can begin appropriate treatment and care resulting in better health outcomes," said Karen Johnson, health administrator at Florida Department of Health in Washington and Holmes counties.

When untreated, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The virus attacks the body's immune system, inhibiting the body from fighting off infections. There is no cure for HIV.

"Studies have shown that providing antiretroviral therapy as early as possible after diagnosis improves a patient's health," Johnson said, "reduces transmission and can eventually lead to undetectable viral loads of HIV."

HIV is mainly spread through sex or sharing syringes and other injection equipment with someone who is infected with HIV, the release states. Condoms and the use of anti-retroviral therapy (ART) or pre-exposure prophlaxis (PrEP) by an HIV-negative person can significantly reduce the risk of transmission.

The national observance calls for support for individuals living with HIV and honor to those who died from an AIDS-related illness. More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, FDOH reports, and 1 in 7 don't know it.

In 2016, Holmes County had four new cases of AIDS -- a historical high -- and zero the previous year, according to FDOH reports. Washington County had no new cases in the same year and two in the previous.

The latter had four new cases of HIV in 2016 and three in 2015, reports show. Holmes had three new cases the same year and zero in the previous.

In order to counter lack of public transportation and limited sites for HIV testing -- two challenges in rural areas -- the local FDOH  has partnered with Bay County's health department to set up a mobile unit for testing.

Anonymous or confidential HIV testing is available at the health department. Fees are based on income and family size; however, health officials said, no one will be turned away if he or she is unable to pay.

To make an appointment in Holmes County, 603 Scenic Circle Bonifay, call 850-547-8500; in Washington County, 1338 South Blvd., 850-638-6240. Find more testing sites at www.KnowYourHIVStatus.com.