Cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus infection. Most human papillomavirus infection is harmless and clears spontaneously but persistent infection with high-risk human papillomavirus (especially type 16) can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, penis, and oropharynx. The virus exclusively infects epithelium and produces new viral particles only in fully mature epithelial cells. Human papillomavirus disrupts normal cell-cycle control, promoting uncontrolled cell division and the accumulation of genetic damage. Two effective prophylactic vaccines composed of human papillomavirus type 16 and 18, and human papillomavirus type 16, 18, 6, and 11 virus-like particles have been introduced in many developed countries as a primary prevention strategy. Human papillomavirus testing is clinically valuable for secondary prevention in triaging low-grade cytology and as a test of cure after treatment. More sensitive than cytology, primary screening by human papillomavirus testing could enable screening intervals to be extended. If these prevention strategies can be implemented in developing countries, many thousands of lives could be saved.