Metro researchers combating local Lyme Disease spread while patients cry for more assistance

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- They're a huge concern, yet they're no bigger than the tip of a pencil.

Doctors in the metro claim sickness from tick bites is on the rise, and patients who are already ill want something done to help them. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center are excited about work that's being done that could lead to new means of combating ticks.

One small bite. That's all it took to ruin their personal health.

In a 2015 study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found as many as 440,000 new cases of tick-borne illness diagnosed each year, and that's only one tick-borne condition that can leave a patient with severe arthritis, neurological trouble or life-changing lethargy.

Lyme Disease might be the most common, and patients fighting that illness complain there isn't enough research being done to help them. Researchers that FOX4 spoke with said they're giving it their all.

Tick-borne illnesses are a top priority in a small, third-floor laboratory at the University of Kansas Medical Center. It's where Swiss-born researcher Dr. Wolfram Zuckert and his team are studying the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease, and they said they're making promising progress.

"I think we're getting better a diagnosing it," Zuckert said. "The local risks are evolving."

The National Institute of Health says the epicenter of tick-borne infections is still in the Northeastern part of the United States, but Zuckert said that's changing. He said it's climate change that's causing the ticks, which are usually found in tall grass and wooded areas, to spread into the Midwest, including the Kansas City area.

"We're particularly looking at what is on the surface of those bacteria, which means what proteins are interacting with either the ticks that transmit Lyme disease or the humans that get infected by that bacteria," Zuckert said.

Lyme Disease is one of 15 tick-borne conditions doctors in the Kansas City metro are diagnosing. The symptoms are proving to trick some seasoned physicians, as they often see signs that resemble a stroke or multiple sclerosis.

Lyme and other tick-borne troubles have put patients such as Keri Waldrip and her chiropractor friend, Dr. Jaban Moore, through the wringer. During the past five years, they've been to multiple doctors who ruled out tick bites as being the cause of their poor health.

"(One doctor) told me there's no Lyme in Kansas City, and I must be crazy and all these symptoms must be in my head," Waldrip said.

Both patients said they're hungry for more accelerated research to begin, and they're spending thousands of dollars trying to regain their health -- that's money that isn't always covered by insurance.

"Cancers get a lot of funding because they kill quickly," Moore said. "Lyme takes away your life. It takes away your enjoyment. It takes away your enjoyment to pick up your grandkids, your ability to remember what's going on."

Waldrip helps operate the website LymeIsLocal.com, which is one of several support groups for tick-borne patients in the Kansas City area. She said one tick bite led to five ailments she's fighting, including a parasite that was found in her body.

"I think Lyme Disease is pretty behind on everything," Waldrip said. "Research, medical care, medical information. Just about every aspect. We're behind on awareness. Being bitten in my front yard means Lyme is here."

And for doctors, spotting a tick-borne illness remains a challenge unless blood tests are specifically focused on finding an ailment such as Lyme.

Dr. Joseph Brewer, an infectious disease specialist with St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City for more than 30 years, said he wishes research could provide better methods of detecting Lyme cases in patients right away.

"Lyme, specifically, I don't think it's gotten any easier. It's still hard to diagnose," Brewer told FOX4.

"We're pretty good at treatment because we know antibiotics work," he said. "But the diagnosis is still difficult at times. It's a difficult one to diagnose. Some of the testing is suggestive, but not 100 percent, so you have to use clinical judgment."

Zuckert also warned of scams related to potential Lyme patients who are desperate for a diagnosis. He said non-accredited clinics are popping up on the East Coast, where patients are made to pay out of pocket, and the physicians' findings may produced for profit instead of the patients' well-being.

The Center for Disease Control website has a list of tick-borne illness symptoms, some of which can occur without a visible bite mark. Researchers that FOX4 spoke with encourage patients to consult that list, and to choose their physicians wisely.

Lyme is Local plans a benefit 5K Race for Sept. 29 at Berkeley Riverfront Park.