What is Rocky Mountain spotted fever? Ticks spread rare, deadly disease
July 1, 2019
For days, 2-year-old Jackson Oblisk had been running a high fever and his small body was covered in tiny red spots.
His pediatrician had suspected it was a viral rash and had sent him home to recover, his mother said. But the toddler was not getting better; he was getting worse, she said.
When his mother, Kayla Oblisk, offered him his favorite food, a peanut butter sandwich, he just held it in his hand. When she turned on his favorite movie, "The Greatest Showman," he slept through it. Jackson, who once loved babbling and singing and calling for the family dog, had stopped communicating, other than to hold his head in his tiny hands and cry, his mother said.
Oblisk, 24, and her husband, Brandon, were worried that their son's symptoms might be related to a tick that had bitten him last month at a park near their home in Hillview, Kentucky.
On Memorial Day - more than a week after the bite - the couple took him to a nearby emergency room. He was soon diagnosed with a very rare tick-borne illness, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, his mother said.
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a serious, life-threatening bacterial infection transmitted by several types of ticks in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC states that the disease, which can cause high fever, severe headache, nausea and vomiting, and a rash, can be fatal when not treated within the first five days of symptoms.
Jackson was admitted to the hospital eight days after he started experiencing symptoms, his mother said.
Bobbi Pritt, a physician and co-director of Vector-Borne Diseases Lab Services at Mayo Clinic, said that although Rocky Mountain spotted fever is considered low-risk, it can be rapidly fatal. In fact, she said, when patients have symptoms consistent with the disease, doctors will typically start treatment without waiting for lab results.
Pritt said that the treatment, an antibiotic called Doxycycline, is found to be effective when the disease is diagnosed early.
One Thursday last month, Jackson's father and grandfather put the young boy in a wagon decorated in Harley-Davidson colors and headed to Mount Washington City Park to play.
Later on May 16, when they got home, they spotted a tiny tick on Jackson's neck, his mother said.
They removed it and threw it away, Oblisk said. But within three days, she said, the toddler had developed a fever and soon had a light pink rash all over his body.
Oblisk said she thought it was an ear infection, so she took Jackson to the pediatrician. The doctor told her it was probably a rash from a viral infection and it would have to run its course, she said.
As Jackson's symptoms persisted, he was treated with steroids, but his condition continued to decline, his mother said. At its worst, she said, his fever hit 105.1 degrees.
On May 27, Jackson was admitted to Norton Children's Hospital in Louisville, and given Doxycycline. But by that time, doctors were unsure whether the disease had been caught in time, Oblisk said.
Jackson would not eat, drink or talk; he alternated between sleeping and screaming, his mother said. The toddler's face was so swollen he could not open his eyes, she said.
"As a parent, that's the worst thing that's ever happened to me," she said.
Jackson started to wake up last Thursday, and the next morning - his 2nd birthday - he made eye contact with his parents again, Oblisk said. Jackson is still not talking or walking, but during a phone interview Monday, the toddler was awake and watching his favorite film in his hospital room, his father told The Post.
Pritt, with the Mayo Clinic, said Rocky Mountain spotted fever is spread primarily through the American dog tick, as well as the brown dog tick, which are both found in Kentucky.
But Pritt said Rocky Mountain spotted fever is only one of many diseases that can be transmitted through ticks. She said it is important for people to take precautions when they are going to be outdoors, such as avoiding tall grasses or wooded areas, wearing protective clothing and tick repellent, and checking humans and animals for ticks after an outing.
She added that it is imperative to remove a tick as quickly as possible because the longer it is attached, the higher the risk it may transmit disease.
Jackson's mother said the toddler is expected to be okay and will soon be released from the hospital and taken to a rehabilitation center. However, his doctors do not know whether he will suffer any long-term effects, his mother said. A GoFundMe has been set up to help cover the family's medical costs.
The Oblisks said they hope their story serves as a warning to other parents to not only check children for ticks but also to trust their instincts.
“As a parent, you know your child more than anybody else. You know when something is wrong,” Oblisk said. “I wish I had followed my gut earlier. He wouldn’t have gone through so much.”
Affordable, Rapid, Confidential