Alex Dempsey and Gabriel Schultz thought their 4-month-old son, Killy, just had a normal fever when they picked him up from day care at the end of last month.
Twenty-four hours later, on June 30, Killy died from a form of bacterial meningitis, leaving the couple from Richmond, Virginia, grieving the loss of their only child together and looking to spread a message to other parents.
"We really want to encourage adults, teenagers, everyone to stay up to date on vaccinations,'' Dempsey told TODAY. "Our big goal is if we can prevent another family from going through what we are, that's what we want, in order to do right by our son."
Dempsey, 27, said officials with the Virginia Department of Health have told her the working theory is that Killy was exposed to an asymptomatic carrier of the meningococcus bacteria during a visit to their pediatrician's office. An asymptomatic carrier can carry the bacteria in his or her nose or throat despite not being sick.
The couple took Killy to get his routine 4-month vaccinations two days before he developed symptoms, which usually manifest themselves within two to 10 days of contracting meningitis.
The Virginia Department of Health cannot discuss the details of individual cases due to state health laws, VDH spokesperson Maribeth Brewster told TODAY.
Meningitis is a serious inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and the spinal cord, and is especially dangerous for infants and children. Last year a baby who was only 18 days old died from meningitis that doctors suspected she caught after a loved one with cold sores touched or kissed her.
Diane Woolard, the director of the VDH Office of Epidemiology Division of Disease Surveillance & Investigation, told TODAY that a case like Killy's is extremely rare. Virginia only gets about 10 to 12 cases of meningococcal disease a year, and very few involve infants or are fatal.
The majority of those who get it are ages 25 to 44, with college students and military members being the most susceptible due to living in tight quarters where the bacteria can be passed by close contact, Woolard said. Ten percent of people can be carrying the bacteria in their nose or throat at any time.
Vaccinations to prevent meningococcal disease are not recommended until children are 11 to 12 years old, and are recommended for teens going away to college and those joining the military. While the vaccinations protect people from getting meningitis themselves, they can be vaccinated and still be asymptomatic carriers, Woolard said.
Dempsey and Schultz, 33, initially thought Killy just had a fever when they took him home from day care on a hot day. They gave him some Tylenol, and then when they changed his diaper, they saw some pale, pink spots they first thought were the beginning stage of diaper rash.
When his fever didn't break, they took him to the emergency room at St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond. Later in the evening, they noticed the pink spots had gotten darker and spread up from his groin to his chest and face.
Doctors told them at that time that they were performing a spinal tap to test for meningitis. A few hours later, Killy was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit as the spots spread all over his body. His blood pressure was low, and he struggled to keep his eyes open.
"Unfortunately I had studied meningitis before and it's a fear of mine because even in adults there's a high mortality rate,'' Dempsey said. "When they said meningitis, that's when I had a feeling we were not leaving the hospital with our son."
Anyone who came in direct contact with Killy has since been given preventative antibiotics, Dempsey said.
"That is another reason why we wanted to bring a light to what happened because maybe this person doesn't know they have it,'' Dempsey said. "It might make them think, 'Maybe I should get this vaccine just in case,' which can help with those who are not in a position to do it themselves."
"It's a horribly heartbreaking story, and I think it's great they're trying to help others by putting this message out,'' Woolard said.
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