BREWER, Maine — Someone is making fake rabies certificates and state officials are warning city and town clerks to be on the lookout for the falsified documents, which could put lives in danger. State veterinarians don’t want someone’s attempt to make a buck become the cause of an outbreak and are working with law enforcement to find the culprit.
“Rabies kills. That’s why we vaccinate for it,” Assistant State Veterinarian Justin Bergeron said Thursday, the day after his co-worker, Assistant State Veterinarian Rachael Fiske, issued the alert to municipal officials.
“Rabies is inevitably a fatal disease,” Fiske said. “We take it very seriously when someone makes fraudulent certificates. Forging a document like that … is a crime.”
The agency has reached out to the state attorney general’s office for help with the investigation and prosecution because “this is a public health issue,” she said.
“It puts all of us at risk,” Kelli Hitchcock, a technician at Moosehead Trail Veterinary Hospital in Newport, said Thursday. “Rabies is nothing to fool around about.”
Rabies is a viral disease that infects the nervous system of humans and other mammals. It is normally transmitted through a bite of an infected animal and is almost always fatal once symptoms are present. People who are infected are treated with human rabies immune globulin to prevent the disease, but they must get the shot within six days for it to be effective.
“It’s hard to say at this point” how many fake rabies certificates have been used, Fiske said. “A handful have been presented” and determined fake.
All dogs must be registered in their hometowns by Jan. 31 annually, so the possibility that someone might try to use a fraudulent rabies document is still possible, she said, which is why the alert was issued. Municipal officials were asked to fax a copy of any suspicious-looking vaccine certificates to Fiske’s office so she could examine them and confirm that the certificate are, in fact, valid.
To prevent the spread of the disease, Maine law requires that cats and dogs be immunized and that rabies shot documentation be shown to town and city clerks when registering dogs.
“These certificates appear similar to a legit vaccine certificate, but do not have an actual signature and have different names at the top and bottom of the certificate,” Bangor City Clerk Lisa Goodwin said in a Wednesday memo. “Neither name presented on the certificate is a veterinarian that is employed at the veterinary clinic listed, nor have they ever been a licensed veterinarian in the State of Maine.”
The fake documents came to light after Brewer Deputy Tax Collector Sharon Watters noticed a slight irregularity on a rabies certificate submitted just before Christmas that listed Moosehead Trail Veterinary Hospital. She called the Newport vet clinic and got Hitchcock. The vet hospital then alerted the state licensing bureau and the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s Animal Welfare Program.
Tampering with public records or information is a Class D crime in Maine, which carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and $2,000 fine for those convicted.
“We actually got a call yesterday from a Winthrop vet clinic about a fake certificate, but it said Broadway Vet,” Hitchcock said. Broadway Veterinary Clinic is located in Bangor.
The cost of getting a rabies shot through Moosehead Trail is $51 for an annual exam plus another $15 for the rabies shot. But rabies clinics, where the shots are free or offered at a low cost, are held annually throughout the state. In fact, Augusta Police Department and the Kennebec Valley Humane Society are holding a $15 clinic on Jan. 22 at the Augusta Buker Center on Armory Street, according to the state’s website.
“These altered vaccine certificates have been showing up at multiple town offices recently,” Goodwin’s memo states.
According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, most animal rabies cases in Maine occur in wildlife, especially in raccoons, skunks, foxes and bats.
Since 2003, Wildlife Services, a program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, has been working to eliminate raccoon rabies from northern Maine by issuing vaccine-treated baits coated with fishmeal. By mid-August, the state had seen 43 diagnosed cases of animal rabies in 13 of Maine’s 16 counties, involving raccoons, striped skunks, foxes, woodchucks and bats. A message left Thursday with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention for an updated 2016 rabies figure was not immediately returned.
Interactions with sick wild animals is typically how the disease is transmitted to pets. Dog bites remain the biggest concern for rabies worldwide, a Maine CDC rabies fact sheet states.
For Hitchcock, the falsified documents have put vets in a precarious position.
“If a sick animal comes in and … bites a staff member, how are we to know?” she said. “It puts all of us at risk.”