Enterovirus A-71 (EV-A71) may be fatal, but the natural history, symptoms, and signs are poorly understood. This study aimed to examine the natural history of fatal EV-A71 infection and to identify the symptoms and signs of early warning of deterioration. This was a clinical observational study of fatal cases of EV-A71 infection treated at five Chinese hospitals between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2012. We recorded and analysed 91 manifestations of EV-A71 infection in order to identify early prognosis indicators. There were 54 fatal cases. Median age was 21.5 months (Q1−Q3: 12–36). The median duration from onset to death was 78.5 h (range, 6 to 432). The multilayer perceptron analysis showed that ataxia respiratory, ultrahyperpyrexia, excessive tachycardia, refractory shock, absent pharyngeal reflex, irregular respiratory rhythm, hyperventilation, deep coma, pulmonary oedema and/or haemorrhage, excessive hypertension, tachycardia, somnolence, CRT extension, fatigue or sleepiness and age were associated with death. Autopsy findings (n = 2) showed neuronal necrosis, softening, perivascular cuffing, colloid and neuronophagia phenomenon in the brainstem. The fatal cases of enterovirus A71 had neurologic involvement, even at the early stage. Direct virus invasion through the neural pathway and subsequent brainstem damage might explain the rapid progression to death.