The list of projects, accomplishments and ongoing research led by Isabel Scarinci, Ph.D., MPH, runs pages long and carries worldwide significance. Yet, as a professor in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine and the senior advisor for Globalization & Cancer at the O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, Scarinci remains unsatisfied until one specific goal is reached.

“My dream is to see the end of cervical cancer as a public health problem because we have the tools to prevent the disease,” she said. “If we vaccinate boys and girls and screen adult women, then we will eliminate that cancer as a public health problem. That is why the Community Health Advisor model is so critical, because we have the tools. We need to continue partnering with these trusted community members to get HPV vaccination and screening to our communities.”

Isabel Scarinci, Ph.D., MPHIsabel Scarinci, Ph.D., MPH

Scarinci’s association with the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Cancer Center goes back nearly 20 years. She was intrigued when she learned of the work taking place at UAB using the CHA model.

“That’s what actually attracted me to UAB, the work Drs. Edward Partridge and Mona Fouad were doing at the Cancer Center,” she said.

In 2002, Scarinci moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and joined the Deep South Network for Cancer Control with Edward Partridge, M.D., the former Cancer Center director and a founder of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement.

“As we evolved, we kept refining the model,” Scarinci said. “The most important piece is really equipping volunteers to promote behavior change because they can then generalize to promoting engagement in other behaviors beyond vaccination and screening. For example, we train community health workers in Brazil to assist women to quit smoking, which is a much more complex behavior than screening.”

Work that began in Alabama and Mississippi then went international to include Brazil, El Salvador, Sri Lanka and the Pacific Islands. This work has been bidirectional, as Scarinci brings the lessons learned in these countries back to Alabama and Mississippi.

Her association with OCOE continues, most recently in a partnership with 17 cancer centers across the nation that are working to better understand the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to cancer prevention, early detection, care and survivorship.

These cancer centers conducted surveys of healthy volunteers and cancer survivors nationwide about their health and well-being during the pandemic.

The UAB portion of the project was successful with more than 600 surveys completed. In all, the study will result in data on several thousand people and will help researchers better understand the impact of the pandemic on the cancer continuum.

Scarinci’s work has gone beyond research. For example, her outreach efforts among Alabama’s Latinx population remains ongoing through the Sowing the Seeds of Health, or “Sembrando las Semillas de la Salud,” program. The program’s Community Health Advisors, or “Promotoras de Salud,” are recruited from the Latinx community to promote better health and connect individuals to affordable health care providers.

The entire program is in Spanish and began as a research project whose results Scarinci turned into a long-standing outreach program as a partnership between the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center, the Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program and multiple health care providers.

The goal of the program is to reduce breast and cervical cancer rates among Latina immigrants. Over the last 16 years, more than 4,000 women have been screened in Jefferson, Shelby, Madison, Limestone, DeKalb and Marshall counties in Alabama.

Scarinci compares today’s fight against cervical cancer to efforts to eradicate polio decades earlier. She knows it well. In 1963, Scarinci was a baby with polio, an illness many thought would forever remain a threat to children. She said her mother could have never imagined that a vaccine would eventually eradicate the debilitating disease.

Likewise, there are now vaccines and screenings available for cervical cancer.

“It is a life’s work for me,” she said.

Scarinci said CHAs will continue to be invaluable partners in the fight against all cancers, especially cervical cancer.

“The message here is having our soldiers and having our ambassadors out there giving the messages, that’s how we are going to address cancer as a public health problem in this country,” she said. “What is missing here is really getting the word out. That’s what I am working on as hard as I can because I think we can do it. We need to do what we did for polio.”

Learn more about cervical cancer and screening at uabmedicine.org.


This story originally ran in the April 2021 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.