Coccidiosis, caused by species of the apicomplexan parasite Eimeria, is a major disease of chickens. Eimeria species are present world-wide, and are ubiquitous under intensive farming methods. However, prevalence of Eimeria species is not uniform across production systems. In developing countries such as Ethiopia, a high proportion of chicken production occurs on rural smallholdings (i.e. 'village chicken production’) where infectious diseases constrain productivity and surveillance is low. Coccidiosis is reported to be prevalent in these areas. However, a reliance on oocyst morphology to determine the infecting species may impede accurate diagnosis. Here, we used cross-sectional and longitudinal studies to investigate the prevalence of Eimeria oocyst shedding at two rural sites in the Ethiopian highlands.
Faecal samples were collected from 767 randomly selected chickens in May or October 2011. In addition, 110 chickens were sampled in both May and October. Eimeria oocysts were detected microscopically in 427 (56%, 95% confidence interval (95% CI) 52-59%) of the 767 faecal samples tested. Moderate clustering of positive birds was detected within households, perhaps suggesting common risk factors or exposure pathways. Seven species of Eimeria were detected by real time PCR in a subset of samples further analysed, with the prevalence of some species varying by region. Co-infections were common; 64% (23/36, 95% CI 46-79%) of positive samples contained more than one Eimeria spp. Despite frequent infection and co-infection overt clinical disease was not reported. Eimeria oocysts were detected significantly more frequently in October (248/384, 65%, 95% CI 60-69%), following the main rainy season, compared to May (179/383, 47%, 95% CI 42-52%, p < 0.001). Eimeria oocyst positivity in May did not significantly affect the likelihood of detecting Eimeria oocyst five months later perhaps suggesting infection with different species or immunologically distinct strains.
Eimeria spp oocysts may be frequently detected in faecal samples from village chickens in Ethiopia. Co-infection with multiple Eimeria spp was common and almost half of Eimeria positive birds had at least one highly pathogenic species detected. Despite this, all sampled birds were free of overt disease. Although there was no evidence of a difference in the prevalence of oocysts in faecal samples between study regions, there was evidence of variation in the prevalence of some species, perhaps suggesting regional differences in exposure to risk factors associated with the birds, their management and/or location-specific environmental and ecological factors.