This review focuses on current and future prevention of invasive cervical cancer (ICC), the second most common cancer among women worldwide. Implementation of population-based cytological screening programmes, using the ‘Pap’ smear to detect pre-cancerous lesions in the cervix, has resulted in substantial declines in mortality and morbidity from ICC in North America and some European countries. However, cases of, and deaths from, ICC continue to occur. Primary prevention of infection with high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) types, the central causal factor of ICC, could further reduce incidence of and mortality from ICC. This is particularly the case in developing countries, which bear 80% of the burden of ICC, and where effective Pap screening programmes are extremely difficult to implement. Very promising results from several trials of synthetic HPV type-specific monovalent (HPV 16) and bivalent (HPV 16 and 18) vaccines have recently been published, showing high efficacy against type-specific persistent HPV infection and development of type-specific pre-cancerous lesions. Large-scale phase III trials of a number of such vaccine candidates are currently underway, and there is real hope that an effective vaccine capable of protecting against infection with HPV types 16 and 18 (which together account for ∼70% of cervical cancer cases worldwide), and thereby of preventing development of a very significant proportion of cases of ICC, could be available within the next 2 years.