Update: After Kenley Ratliff's family shared their fears that a tick bite killed their otherwise healthy toddler, test results officially confirmed that Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever caused her death.
Kenley's aunt, Jordan Clapp, told Today that lab results confirmed that the tick-borne bacterial infection caused the toddler's brain to swell and organs to fail. Her family didn't originally suspect that a tick bite was behind her devastating symptoms and hopes that their story will help educate parents before another child's death occurs.
Original Story: Kenley Ratliff would've turned 3 years old this month, but instead, her family is reeling from her unexpected death. As they cope with their loss, they are warning other parents about the disease that doctors believe killed their little girl because the symptoms weren't caught soon enough: Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Kenley died eight days after she first spiked a fever, and as her family waits for confirmation that this tick-borne disease is the cause of her death, they are speaking out. "If we could save one child's life then we will have done our job," Jordan Clapp, Kenley's aunt, told Today. "Kayla [Kenley's mom] is so devastated. Spreading awareness is therapeutic."
The nightmare began when Kenley developed a 103.8 fever. Her mom rushed her to the emergency room, and doctors concluded that she had a virus or bacterial infection. They sent her home with a prescription for antibiotics and told Kayla to make sure that she rested and stayed hydrated.
Kenley's fever continued to rise the next day, so they returned to the hospital. This time, Kenley tested positive for strep throat, so they sent her back home with the same treatment. But three days later, she still had a 104-degree fever. "Now we were on the panicky side," Jordan said. "Some time had passed because doctors told Kayla to wait and let the antibiotics work."
The child's parents decided to take her to a different hospital, and her body "went completely limp" on the way there. "Her eyes closed and my sister had to hold her head up," Jordan said.
Doctors at the University of Indiana's Riley Children's Hospital switched her antibiotics, but she still didn't show signs of improvement. Then a rash began to spread across her arms and legs. The red spotting, which is a trademark symptom of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, made doctors realize that they had been treating the wrong diagnosis.
The toddler developed other signs of this deadly tick-borne disease by the time doctors changed her medicine. Unfortunately, it wasn't soon enough to save Kenley's life. Her organs started to fail and her brain swelled, leaving her family reeling from what they wish they had known about this disease.
"After the first two hospital visits we thought it was strep," Jordan said. However, it now makes sense that a tick could be the culprit. "She was always outside. Just recently she had gone camping."
When children are infected with Rocky Mountain spotted fever, the symptoms can be ambiguous, like in Kenley's case, making it even more important for parents to be aware of this tick-borne illness. "It is a disease that can present with very non-specific signs and symptoms," Paige Armstrong, a medical epidemiologist, told Today. "In the early stages there can be high fever, headache and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea. The rash tends not to develop until days two or four in children and rashes can be quite common with viruses."
Andrew Nowalk, an infectious-disease specialist, explained that the symptoms "may not ring a bell in the early stages" because they are so similar to other illnesses. "Delayed diagnosis is one of the big challenges with this disease," he said.
Children younger than 10 years old are at a greater risk, and Paige warned that late diagnoses "significantly increase the risk of fatality." According to the CDC, these are the symptoms of Rocky Mountain spotted fever that parents should know:
- Rash (occurs two to five days after fever, may be absent in some cases)
- Abdominal pain (may mimic appendicitis or other causes of acute abdominal pain)
- Muscle pain
- Lack of appetite
- Conjunctival injection (red eyes)