Last Sunday I literally was clueless about a New York Times crossword puzzle clue: “Menace named after an African river.” The answer was five letters long. WHAT WERE THEY?!?!
I finally did figure out the answer from the crossing words: Ebola. And that’s how I learned the origin of the name of this frightening virus, which is making headlines this year because of an outbreak in West Africa.
I was curious whether other infamous global health ailments have appeared in the Times crossword. So I asked puzzle editor (and NPR puzzle master) Will Shortz. “Crosswords tend to avoid unpleasant subjects like diseases — but occasionally the names do slip in unavoidably,” he wrote in an email.
Shortz graciously provided a list of all the New York Times crossword clues he’s published for Ebola and other diseases on a short list I sent.
Here they are, with the number of times they’ve appeared. They’re kind of like a haiku of disease — and they definitely are enlightening. So that’s what malaria means!
Vaccine target 
Challenge for F.D.R.
Salk vaccine target
Bygone epidemic cause
Salk’s conquest 
Modern term for “Roman fever”
Tropical woe 
“Bad air,” literally
This has never appeared in a New York Times crossword because answers must have at least three letters.
Also a no-go because MERS is plural French for “seas.” So that’s what the clue would be.
Outbreak of 2003
2003 disease scare
Headline-making illness of 2002-03
Menace named after an African river
African virus 
Virus that arose in the Congo
“The Hot Zone” virus 
Virus named for a river 
“The Hot Zone” topic 
Deadly virus 
Dangerous strain