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 fight against coccidiosis in chickens means the adoption of different strategies depending of the type of bird. If we are managing long life cycle birds, we have to pay special attention to clinical Eimeria species that are able to generate a real coccidiosis process with macroscopic lesions and symptoms that will reduce the healthy status of the birds and will compromise the development of immunity against other diseases or cause the death of the birds.
However, when we are rearing standard, certified or even free-range broilers, the focus needs to be a different one. In these cases it will be difficult to find real clinical coccidiosis. Otherwise, the “silent” species – such as Eimeria praecox among others – will affect the intestinal mucosa and will reduce the capacity of a broiler for nutrient absorption. Dealing with subclinical species is essential in coccidiosis in chickens with a high growth rate.
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.
Eimeria tenella is by far the most widely detected species on farms when routine lesion scoring is performed. However, it is well known that Eimeria infections very seldom occur with one single species of Eimeria, most of the time they are multiple. Let’s investigate what are the most prevalent species and how multiple infections usually occur.
As Eimeria tenella is probably the easiest species to detect by lesion scoring, a common belief is that this species is the most prevalent all over the globe. In fact, macroscopic lesions are amongst the most pathognomonic with blood or typical moulds in the caecum and common finding of bloody droppings in the litter.
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.
Within the scope of assessing new strategies for the control of coccidiosis in poultry, the first factors to consider are always immunological and physiological but also include less objective factors such as the management. However, when these new strategies come to be assessed, the exercise has to be carried out in perspective by evaluating those indicators that are the most critical in order to decide whether maintaining such strategies or to replacing them with others. In the production of broiler chickens, these indicators are solely productive.
Live precocious attenuated vaccines for coccidiosis in poultry like HIPRACOX® have been used in numerous countries and situations, and these experiences serve to support the implementation of vaccine rotation programmes for the control of coccidiosis in poultry.
EVALON® is a live coccidiosis vaccine against avian coccidiosis in poultry composed of E. acervulina, E. brunetti, E. maxima, E. necatrix and E. tenella. All the strains have been selected to maximize immunogenicity. Avian Eimeria have a complex life cycle with a combination of exogenous and endogenous stages that trigger the immune system of the host. However, Eimeria parasites have also been described as being highly elusive to the immune system as well as producing chemokines than can slow or inhibit the immune response (Jang 2011,Schmid 2014, Miska 2013).
Although it is well known that live vaccines can induce an adequate immunity, we strongly believe that immune modulation is crucial in providing a strong, fast and long-lasting immunity (Dalloul 2005). This could be essential in the prevention of coccidiosis in poultry.
The cellular and molecular mechanisms leading to immune protection against coccidiosis in chickens are complex and include multiple aspects of innate and adaptive immunity. Innate immunity is mediated by subpopulations of immune cells that recognize pathogen-associated molecular patterns. Adaptive immunity, which is important in conferring protection against secondary infections, involves subtypes of T and B lymphocytes that mediate antigen specific immune response. Experimental studies in coccidiosis in chickens now support the role of lymphocytes and their secreted products (Lillehoj et al. 2011)
Eimeria parasites have a long and complex biological cycle with exogenous and endogenous phases that trigger the immune system of the host. These parasites that cause coccidiosis in chickens can produce substances (chemokines) than can inhibit the immune response.
In the fight against infectious diseases, the first step is the correct identification of the causative agent, and the symptoms and lesions that it causes in the host. A correct diagnosis influences on the effectiveness of the treatment established, particularly if it is combined with preventive measures such as vaccination. Traditional techniques such as microscopic observation and oocysts counting remain very useful as screening methods, and an aid in the diagnosis and treatment of coccidiosis in animals. DNA-based methods such as PCR have overcome some limitations of these conventional methods, allowing the analysis of more samples in less time, increasing sensitivity and allowing the quantification of the parasite in one step.
These new methods positively influence the treatment of coccidiosis, expanding the possibilities for the poultry veterinarian to control the disease.
From the very beginnings of this type of animal production, control of digestive diseases in the poultry industry has been one of the most significant health challenges. Moreover, among digestive diseases, coccidiosis in poultry continues to pose a challenge for the poultry farming worldwide. The incorporation of new tools provides new resources for safe and effective control.
Where are we coming from?
The housing conditions of birds used in production constitute a trigger factor for digestive diseases, with coccidiosis in poultry being one of the most prevalent, caused by parasites of the Eimeria genus.