UAB doctors working to eliminate cervical cancer in Alabama

WAFF 48's Jasmyn Cornell reporting
Published: Nov. 25, 2022 at 8:38 AM CST
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WAFF) - Cervical cancer is a public health issue in the United States and Alabama.

Each year in the U.S., about 13,000 new cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed, and approximately, 4,000 women die of this cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The incidence is the highest among Hispanics, but mortality is higher among African American women,” said Dr. Isabel Scarinci, the vice chair for Global and Rural Health in the UAB Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

“Alabama has one of the highest, the third highest, incidence of cervical cancer in the U.S. as well as the third highest mortality,” she added.

Doctors at the University of Alabama at Birmingham are working to raise awareness of the cancer and prevent the occurrence of it in the state.

“We can eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem,” said Dr. Scarinci.

Long-lasting infection with certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) is the main cause of cervical cancer, according to medical providers.

Dr. Scarinci says incidence and mortality rates are high in Alabama because of two reasons:

  • Lack of screening: Screenings can detect HPV or changes in the cervix before it turns into cancer.

“For young women, younger women than 30, we know they do the PAP, what now we call the Pap test, and for women 30 and older, usually they do what we call co-testing. They do the PAP, and they also do HPV testing,” she said.

“We do not do HPV testing for women younger than 30 because if they’re positive, there’s nothing we can do. There’s no treatment for HPV. It is only after the age of 30 [when it] persists that we need to watch,” Dr. Scarinci added.

  • No follow-up appointment: Women, who have abnormal screenings, do not come back for a follow-up appointment.

“About 40%... 40% of women with an abnormal screening do not come back for follow up here at UAB, which is extremely high,” said Dr. Scarinci.

Along with screening and timely follow-ups, she says HPV vaccination is also an important tool in preventing pre-cancer and cancer.

“Vaccine is most effective before a person is exposed to the virus. That’s why HPV vaccination is recommended for children – boys and girls – between the ages of 11 and 12. We can start as early as nine and then up to the age of 26,” said Dr. Scarinci. “In discussion with the healthcare provider, some people can get vaccination up to the age of 45.”

“The other important thing is that vaccine is covered by most health insurances, and if it’s not, we have Vaccines for Children. That’s a federal program that covers the vaccine, so the vaccine is free,” she said.

According to Dr. Scarinci, prevention of cervical cancer is in our hands. She says UAB is developing a plan called “Operation Wipe Out” to eliminate the cancer as a public health problem in Alabama.

“The involvement of the civil society is going to be critical,” she said. “We are partnering with Rotary Clubs. We are partnering with TogetHER for Health; that’s a nonprofit organization committed to eliminating cervical cancer.”

“We are doing the research about self-sampling for HPV testing. That is women can self-collect their own sampling [and] put [it] in the mail, so they don’t need to go in[to a doctor’s office]. But that is still research; it has not been approved by the FDA yet,” said Dr. Scarinci.

According to Dr. Scarinci, UAB doctors are also looking into in-school vaccination.

“Cervical cancer is the cancer where we have the hope.... Just the thought that we can eliminate.... eliminate a cancer, a particular cancer, that is such a great opportunity,” she said.

Dr. Scarinci says they hope to launch “Operation Wipe Out” in January.

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