Coccidiosis – due to parasites of the genus Eimeria – is one of the most devastating diseases in poultry: a disease which has always being present in every poultry flock since the first chick appeared on the earth; in fact, Eimeria is an ever-present parasite that it is impossible to eradicate. For this reason, a coccidiosis prevention strategy needs to be put in place for each batch of chickens that arrives on a farm. Worldwide losses due to coccidiosis in poultry are estimated to be around US$1.5 billion/year.
From the 1950s the use of some chemical molecules has been implemented to prevent the effects of the several Eimeria species that cause the disease. Whereas the use of vaccines is quite commune in breeders, only between 5 and 6% of broilers in the world are actually vaccinated instead of being treated with anticoccidials.
The Eimeria species responsible for coccidiosis in the species Gallus gallus are: E. acervulina, E. maxima, E. mitis, E. praecox and E. tenella, which are responsible for the disease in short life-cycle poultry (broilers), and E. necatrix and E. brunetti, which, together with the above 5 species, are responsible for the occurrence of outbreaks in long life-cycle poultry (breeders and layers). They are all ubiquitous in their behaviour and vary in their pathogenicity.
There are seven Eimeria species that are responsible for avian coccidiosis, 5 of which cause the disease in broilers: E. acervulina, E. mitis, E. tenella, E. maxima and E. praecox.
Seven species of Eimeria (E. acervulina, E. brunetti, E. maxima, E. mitis, E. necatrix, E. praecox and E. tenella) are recognized to be causative agents of coccidiosis in chickens of the genus Gallus gallus. Until recently, Eimeria praecox was considered to be a non-pathogenic species unable to cause adverse effects in the host.
In fact, in 1970, when Johnson & Reid wrote the milestone article that for the first time standardized and described the scoring scale for lesions caused by all Eimeria spp., Eimeria praecox was not included. It was, and still is, well know that E. praecox is not able to provoke pathognomonic lesions like E. acervulina, E. brunetti, E. maxima, E. necatrix and E. tenella, however even then some researchers were investigating whether this species of Eimeria was truly non-pathogenic.
Eimeria spp is a protozoan parasite with a complex life cycle and so is the host immune response to Eimeria infection. In the last decade, huge progress has been made in the identification of host and parasite genes involved in immunogenicity but there are still some immunity mechanisms to be discovered.
As a general rule, we say that Eimeria immunity is species-specific, meaning that each species of Eimeria is able to stimulate protective immunity against itself. Although some studies suggest that partial cross-protection can be achieved (Augustine et al. 1991), from a practical perspective we have to assume the widely accepted belief that there is no cross-protection between species.
The Eimeria biological cycle is a very complex one and is comprised of intracellular, extracellular, asexual and sexual stages. It is of paramount importance its understanding as its comprehension helps to understand the parasite epidemiology in the field, its pathogenicity and immunobiology.
Seven species of Eimeria (E. acervulina, E. brunetti, E. maxima, E. mitis, E. necatrix, E. praecox and E. tenella) are recognized to be causative agents of coccidiosis in chickens of the genus Gallus gallus.