Dr. Oz And Diane Harper On HPV Vaccines And Knowing The Research

10/23/2012 08:20 am ET

Last week, HuffPost Live visitors were treated to a drop-in by the good doctor, cardiologist and talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz as part of a larger conversation on human papillomavirus and the vaccine that prevents some strains of it. He was joined by Dr. Diane Harper, one of the foremost HPV researchers in the country and Lauren Striker, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, along with two HuffPost community members.

You can watch the full conversation above -- or read on for some highlights.

There has been a great deal of debate surrounding the vaccine that prevents HPV, as it is more commonly known. While some researchers believe that the vaccine should be given to children as young as 11 or 12, others point to the short lifespan of Gardasil's protective window, which can start to wear off after five or six years, according to Harper.

"There's a common misunderstanding for why vaccines are pushed to 11-and 12-year olds. The thought is they wouldn't be exposed to HPV by then, so they can get immunity before exposure," said Harper. "But Gardasil acts for five years. The antibodies wear off. And we don't know if it's long term protective."

Since the age window with the highest rate of infection is between 16 and 25, she advocates waiting until that age to get immunized. Striker disagreed.

"Good data show that by age 16, 40 percent have had intercourse," she explained. "And 70 percent have by the end of high school and 20 percent have had four or more partners. What I see [in clinic] is warts, precancerous changes, lesions. These require distressing procedures."

HPV is a very common virus. Estimates suggest that 80 percent of the population has been infected by the virus by age 50. While there are many strains, the vaccine protects against four in particular -- HPV-16 and HPV-18, which are cancer causing, responsible for cervical, penile, anal and throat cancers. The vaccine also protects against HPV-6 and HPV-11, which cause genital warts.

Currently, several doctors' organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Pediatric Association recommend giving the vaccine to boys and girls during early adolescence, along with continued pap smears -- a screening of cervical cells for abnormalities that could later turn to cancer.

There is no routine test to screen for anal cancer -- a particular concern for men who have sex with men.

Oz agreed with Harper that the vaccine might be better off delayed: "Needs to happen, but maybe it could happen later."

He added that another measure, a blood test that can check for the viral antibodies, could help prevent precancerous cellular changes from turning into cancer. "If you are positive, but cells look normal, you still might want to change your behavior," he said, suggesting overall cancer prevention methods like quitting smoking and eating healthfully.

For more on the particular HPV and vaccine concerns for boys and men, HuffPost Gay Voices has more.

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