White nose syndrome (WNS) is caused by the fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans that grows on the muzzle and other parts of infected hibernating bats.
Since WNS was first identified in New York in 2006, it has caused the deaths of more than 5 million cave-hibernating bats across North America.
The fungus that causes WNS can spread between caves by surviving on clothing, footwear and caving gear. It is thought that the fungus was introduced to North America from Europe by human activities, such as international movement of contaminated footwear and other gear.
Australia is free of WNS but the movement of cavers and other people (researchers, karst managers, tourists) between affected caves in North America and caves in Australia is one way that the disease-causing fungus could enter Australia.
If the disease did enter Australia, it could cause disease and death in Australian native bats, including some that are listed as Critically Endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
Cavers visiting Australia
An international caving congress being held in Sydney in July 2017, which includes more than 20 field trips to caves around Australia, poses a particular risk for the introduction of WNS.
Congress delegates have a vital role in preventing the entry of WNS into Australia.
If you will be visiting Australia to attend the congress:
- do not bring clothing, footwear and caving gear that has been used in other countries
- comply with the cleaning protocols imposed by the congress organisers to decontaminate gear before and after field trips.
International cavers visiting Australia outside of the congress also represent a risk for the introduction of WNS.
The fungus that causes WNS has been found in many parts of the world, including Europe and China, so even if you have not visited a cave in North America, your gear could still be contaminated.
Australian cavers visiting caves overseas also have an important role to play in preventing the introduction of WNS. If you are visiting caves in other countries:
- avoid taking your own gear, particularly if visiting caves in areas where WNS is known to be present
- contact the local speleological group to enquire about loan gear, or
- purchase cheap gear at the destination that can be left behind when returning to Australia.
A North American multiagency working group produces guidelines for the decontamination of clothing and footwear after visiting caves. Be aware that decontamination may not completely remove or destroy the fungus. The protocol recommends that gear used in an affected cave is not used in ‘clean’ caves.
Clinical signs and reporting
Australian cavers and those working with hibernating bats should be aware of WNS and report any suspected cases to the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888.
Key signs to look out for are:
- visible white fungus (particularly on the bat's nose)
- mass mortalities of cave-dwelling bats
- abnormal behaviour, such as bats flying outside during the day.
Wildlife Health Australia provides information about how to report a suspect case of WNS.