South Carolina would offer free HPV vaccines to middle school students under a bill approved by the state House of Representative on Wednesday.
The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines would be recommended for students, particularly girls, entering seventh grade — but it would not be required. HPV is a sexually-transmitted disease that has been linked to cervical cancer cases in women. Men are considered to be at a lesser risk but can also get cancer through the virus.
The bill would allow the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to offer the vaccines at its clinics for uninsured teens who might not otherwise get the vaccines. “South Carolina ranks eighth in the nation for cervical cancer mortality rates,” lead sponsor State Rep. Beth Bernstein, D-Columbia, said on the House floor. “At the same time, this state ranks 47th for the number of young women who are receiving the HPV vaccine. That should tell us something.”
The bill passed in an 83-27 vote. All “no” votes came from Republicans. The measure will head to the Senate after another procedural vote on Thursday.
Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed similar legislation in 2012, saying the House had not set aside enough funds to cover an estimated $520,000 price tag. Bernstein said the Governor’s Office has given its support to this year’s version of the bill, which would not require DHEC to operate the program unless it had enough funding to do so.
The Gardasil vaccine offered to teens is somewhat controversial — as the disease is spread sexually and the vaccine’s side effects have been noted by some conservative groups. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists those side effects as headaches, fever, and potential pain and swelling along the area of injection.
State Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Columbia, helped sustain the governor’s veto three years ago when he gave an emotional speech outlining severe immune issues he said his own daughter developed after getting the vaccine. He gave a more restrained speech Wednesday, only warning legislators that side effects do exist before voting in favor of the bill himself.
“We’re trying to look at something here that probably is for the betterment of a whole population,” Huggins said. “I understand that it is a very small percentage. My child happened to fall in that percentage and I want you to be aware of that.”
A 2009 Centers for Disease Control study determined Gardasil is no more dangerous than any other vaccine. A 2010 study published in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal reported that 0.05 percent of Gardasil clinical trial participants experienced a serious reaction to the treatment.
The vaccine’s supporters said that rate was almost negligible. “While you’re worried about the… side effect rate, six South Carolinians will die of cervical cancer this month. This month, folks,” State Rep. Robert Ridgeway, a Manning Democrat and obstetrician, told his colleagues.
The bill would also require DHEC to publish brochures that could be offered at schools explaining the HPV vaccine. The brochures must note the vaccine is optional, according to the proposal’s language.