Seventh-graders across the state could gain access to a free vaccination preventing certain types of cancer if lawmakers can sway Gov. Nikki Haley to support the program.

By the numbers

12,000The number of new cases of cervical cancer in the U.S. each year. 400The number of men who contract penile cancer resulting from HPV in the U.S. each year. 20 millionThe number of men and women in the U.S. living with HPV.11 or 12The recommended age boys and girls should be vaccinated for HPV.46 millionNumber of HPV vaccines administered in the U.S. as of July 2012.Source: CDC

State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark, has introduced legislation that would allow the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to administer a series of three shots that would guard against the human papillomavirus to all seventh-grade students throughout the state.

HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease, can lead to cervical cancer in women and, less commonly, is linked to other forms of cancer in both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sellers explained at a press conference at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Hollings Cancer Center on Monday afternoon that approximately 75 percent of all seventh-grade students in South Carolina already qualify for a free HPV vaccine through various existing programs. This legislation would ensure that the remaining 25 percent are covered for the shots, Sellers said.

“(Last year) Republicans and Democrats alike got this bill to the goal line,” Sellers said. “We’re starting here — at the forefront of cancer research, of cancer prevention to hopefully say, this time next year, that we got the ball across the goal line.”

Also speaking was former first lady Jenny Sanford, a member of the Hollings Cancer Center Advisory Board, who supported the legislation and the importance of providing access to the HPV vaccine.

“I think it makes great sense to spend a little bit of money up front vaccinating children to save lots of money in the long run,” Sanford said.

The bill also directs the health department to create a brochure that would educate parents about the availability and advantages of vaccinating their children.

Dr. Andrew Kraft, director of the Hollings Cancer Center, said only 23 percent of eligible girls in South Carolina are being vaccinated for HPV — a lower percentage than in Georgia and North Carolina. The state in 2006 had the eighth-highest mortality rate of cervical cancer in the nation, according to data published by the Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association.

“Death from cervical cancer or from head and neck cancer is, I can tell you from experience, a horrible way to go. We can prevent this in South Carolina,” Kraft said. “The people that we’re comparing ourselves to are doing a better job. We need to make progress in this area.”

On Monday, Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said in a statement that the governor believes parents, not legislators, should make decisions about their children’s health care.

“The bill puts a premium on what state government thinks is best for our kids at the expense of what parents know is best when it comes to making decisions about children’s health,” Godfrey said.

This is the second consecutive legislative session that Sellers has introduced the bill. An identical version passed both the House and Senate with bipartisan support during the 2012 session, only to be vetoed by Haley last June. At the time, Haley argued the bill carried no weight because it did not require the health department to administer the vaccination. In a letter to House Speaker Bobby Harrell, Haley also expressed concerns about where money to fund the program would come from.

“I have vetoed this bill because although it would have no real impact today, it is a precursor to another taxpayer funded health care mandate,” Haley wrote.

The wording of the bill specifies that the program would be covered by federal and state funds. A fiscal impact statement prepared by the State Budget and Control Board for the vetoed bill indicates administrative and operating expenses would total about $25,000 for the program. The health department would accrue about $330,000 in expenses to administer the vaccines, the report says.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.