Leishmania are protozoan parasites spread by a sandfly insect vector and causing a spectrum of diseases collectively known as leishmaniasis. The disease is a significant health problem in many parts of the world, resulting in an estimated 1·3 million new cases and 30 000 deaths annually. Current treatment is based on chemotherapy, which is difficult to administer, expensive and becoming ineffective in several endemic regions. To date there is no vaccine against leishmaniasis, although extensive evidence from studies in animal models indicates that solid protection can be achieved upon immunization. This review focuses on immune responses to Leishmania in both cutaneous and visceral forms of the disease, pointing to the complexity of the immune response and to a range of evasive mechanisms utilized by the parasite to bypass those responses. The amalgam of innate and acquired immunity combined with the paucity of data on the human immune response is one of the major problems currently hampering vaccine development and implementation.