The Senate on Thursday approved a House bill aimed at educating students and their parents about cervical cancer vaccines.
But the bill faces dim chances of passage this year because two Upstate senators have objected to the legislation because of concerns over vaccine side effects and what the language in an educational brochure will look like.
Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican, said he wants to see what the brochure that would be distributed to sixth graders would look like, while Sen. Lee Bright, a Spartanburg Republican, said he has concerns over possible side effects of the vaccines as well as the state “becoming a marketing arm for a pharmaceutical company.”
However, Heather Brandt, a cancer researcher at the University of South Carolina, said Bright’s concerns are unfounded and that the vaccines are needed in the state, which ranks 47th in the nation in using the vaccine for adolescents.
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According to the American Cancer Society, 220 women in the state will get cervical cancer this year, and 70 will die from the disease.
Brandt said the legislation would allow DHEC to provide vaccines to adolescents who might not otherwise receive them, either because they are not insured or not poor enough to qualify for federal funding, a group of between 2,400 to 4,000 per year.
Bright said he is not sure whether he will change his opposition.
“There’s no substitute for pap smears,” Bright told The Greenville News. “I’ve spoken to a lot of folks on both sides of the issue and I’m listening. But I’m really concerned about reports I’ve read about folks with debilitating side effects.”
Bright said a lot of vaccines are used to prevent diseases “you can’t control.”
“The cervical cancer, HPV is a sexually transmitted disease and people through behavior can prevent an occurrence,” he said.
Fair told the Senate Thursday that he wants to see the language in the brochure that will be given to sixth graders.
“I have a problem with children being a courier of information that may or may not make it home,” he said. “No one can do anything but speculate as to the information that is being given. Is it age appropriate information consistent with what most of us would want our young daughters to have?”
The Legislature has three days left in this year’s regular session after Thursday.
Brandt said HPV, the virus linked to the cancer, is not spread only through intercourse. It is spread through skin-to-skin contact, she said, in the genital area. She said there also is evidence of oral transmission and that “among males, the burden of HPV will pass females.” Males are developing oral cancer from HPV, Brandt said.
As to side effects, she said, one of the vaccines in use is approved for use in 134 countries. More than 180 million doses have been given worldwide, she said.
“This vaccine is safe,” she said. “This vaccine works. And this vaccine lasts. And in terms of safety, the benefits of HPV vaccination far outweigh any potential risk.”
She said cervical cancer vaccines are recommended both by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the World Health Organization.
Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat and supporter of the bill, told the Senate in response to opposition to the bill that “sometimes I think we are taking two steps backward to the stone ages.”
“We are in the top 10 in the country in cervical cancer,” he said. “If we are concerned that a kid will take home a brochure about how you get cervical cancer to give to their parents and it includes that dirty three-letter word, sex, then we are kidding ourselves.
Lourie said South Carolina ranks 47th in using the vaccine on young girls.
“There is nothing mandatory about this bill,” he said. “There is nothing that makes your daughter have to go get the vaccine. It provides education and information.”
The bill allows the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to develop informational brochures concerning adolescent vaccinations, including those for cervical cancer. The bill requires the brochure to list side effects and benefits from the vaccine and to state the vaccine is optional. DHEC can then offer the cervical cancer vaccination series for students in the seventh grade. Implementation of the bill is dependent on adequate funding.
Lourie argued that the bill sends information to parents, providing a “common sense way to move the needle.”
“That’s what we should all be about, moving the needle,” he said. “This is not a silver bullet. It’s not going to cure cervical cancer. But if it saves one life, I think we have done a good thing.”
Sen. Tom Davis, a Beaufort Republican, said he initially had some of the same concerns about the bill but he worked with the governor’s office to develop an amendment now in the bill that requires parental consent before the vaccine can be made available. He said the governor now supports the bill.
Lourie said the language in the brochure would come from the website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Fair said the bill does not limit the language to that of the CDC.
Rep. Beth Bernstein, a Columbia Democrat who is the bill’s author, said the bill is about saving lives of women.
“It is a vaccination that can prevent cancer,” she said. “People lose sight of that.”
She said the brochure will list side effects and benefits, making it “an informed consent.”
“We can start saving lives and that’s something we should be able to do as representatives in this state,” she said.
Only about 40 percent of young women in South Carolina receive all three doses of the vaccine, according to a national teen immunization survey.
Fair and Bright both have objections on the bill, meaning it cannot pass the Senate without either their approval or a vote of two-thirds of the Senate to take up the matter.
Under a deal worked out Thursday, the Senate gave the bill second reading, with the objections of the two senators in place and an agreement that amendments could be considered if the Senate brings it up for final approval.