For UCLA Health’s Medell Briggs-Malonson, MD, MPH, science and inclusion are a genuine family affair.
When the testing of the COVID-19 vaccines on children began last spring, Dr. Briggs-Malonson volunteered not only her immediate family but also her extended one.
As an associate professor of Emergency Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Dr. Briggs-Malonson was naturally interested in the efficacy and safety of the vaccines. But as chief of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion for the UCLA Hospital & Clinic System, she was looking at the societal big picture.
As a Black physician dedicated to promoting inclusion, Dr. Briggs-Malonson said she wanted her own children involved, not just for diversification of the study, but also to send a message to ethnic communities that they were included and that the vaccine was safe for their children.
"I felt very confident that enrolling my own children, as well as recommending it to the rest of my family, would allow us to take part in advancing science, and of course, assist in saving lives of children not only here in the United States but also throughout the world," Dr. Briggs-Malonson said. "That was important to us, as a family, and important to me, as a physician and health equity advocate."
Seven children in her family eagerly participated, including her two sons, a niece and their cousins. Dr. Briggs-Malonson said the trials went very well, with minimal or no side effects among the children who received the vaccine.
Confident in vaccine safety
The decision to involve her family was not really that hard for Dr. Briggs-Malonson, with her background and expertise in microbiology and immunology.
"I understood the science and I was very confident in the vaccines, and all of myfamily members wanted to participate," Dr. Briggs-Malonson said, adding that she explained the COVID-19 pandemic to the children and detailed how the vaccines work. She then let them make their own decisions about whether to participate in the trial study.
Her two sons, ages 11 and 9, were acutely aware of the dangers of the virus, which made them all the more eager to participate in the study.
"Being the children of an emergency physician, COVID has been part of their life pretty closely all of these months," she said.
Sending a message to communities of color
Dr. Briggs-Malonson is hoping her actions will send a powerful message to other parents who are trying to decide whether to get their children immunized.
"We wanted to ensure that communities of color knew that their children were accounted for in these initial studies to, again, reinforce the safety and the efficacy of the vaccine," she said. "While advancing the science with the diversification of these clinical trials, we also really wanted to send a message to communities of color that our kids were also involved."
That urgency is intensified by the fact that some of these communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic.
"We have seen COVID disproportionately devastate low-income communities and low-income communities of color," Dr. Briggs-Malonson said. "We have seen this for multiple reasons. We have also seen lower acceptance rates of the COVID vaccine among communities of color in general. One reason why we see lower acceptance rates is because of the history of medical racism that we have experienced in this country over generations."
Growing equity in the health care system
To get through the pandemic and to move forward, Dr. Briggs-Malonson has made it her mission to work toward a future in which all people have confidence in the health care system and have equal access to it.
"For parents, we always want the best for our children," she said. "The same way our children receive vaccines to protect them from other childhood diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox, this vaccine for COVID works exactly the same way. The vaccine is helping to protect our children."
It also helps the community, Dr. Briggs-Malonson said, by moving us closer to broader immunity.
"Especially for kids in school, we don't always know what medical problems other children might have," she said. "So not only does the COVID vaccine protect our children that may not have chronic medical conditions, but it helps to protect those children that do have chronic medical conditions. Getting our children vaccinated is a way of protecting other people's children as well.”
She added: "There has been a large amount of dedicated research into this vaccine, and especially for children, because we know children are one of our more vulnerable groups."
Dr. Briggs-Malonson said the research has been "overwhelmingly positive."
"The scientific rigor has been the same rigor that has been placed in approving other pediatric vaccinations," she said. "I would have never put my children into this clinical trial if I did not have confidence that it was safe for them. That would be my message to parents and guardians. The science is very rigorous and has shown significant safety and efficacy in the pediatric population. This is our way to protect our children from this virus."
She said she believes it also builds trust within historically marginalized communities when they see a woman of color as a physician, who is telling them they can trust the medical system with the health of their children.
Dr. Briggs-Malonson was just 5, herself, when she first knew she wanted to be a doctor. When her aunt, a nurse, found her playing with her stethoscope, she asked, "Oh, do you want to be a doctor?" Do you want to be a doctor when you grow up?" That inspired the future physician.
"She didn't ask if I wanted to be a nurse, like her," Dr. Briggs-Malonson said. “She asked if I wanted to be a doctor. I think she was planting a seed, and she knew that we needed more physicians of color. She knew we needed more women physicians of color."
Dr. Briggs-Malonson’s primary focus now is on ensuring equity throughout the health care system.
"I have numerous interests and passions. But, these interests and passions converge and squarely focus on ensuring that we are improving the health of all people regardless of their social identities and experiences," she said.
"Advancing inclusive excellence, equity and justice in health care has been and will continue to be my core professional goal. We are in an important and pivotal time. I am proud of the progress that UCLA Health has already achieved and I look forward to our continued strategic work to promote health equity and social justice for the entire Los Angeles community."
Learn more about UCLA Health’s dedication to Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.
Tina Daunt is the author of this article.