The vast majority of women do not know that most cervical cancer is caused by a sexually transmitted infection.
HPV infection is linked with most cervical cancers
In a survey of 1,600 women only 2.5% cited human papillomavirus as a risk factor for cervical cancer.
Researchers said the results, published in the British Journal of Cancer, were "striking" considering recent publicity over the development of a HPV vaccine.
Experts said the public needed to be better informed before widespread vaccination was introduced.
There are over 100 different types of HPV and they are the most common sexually transmitted disease.
Around 80% of sexually active women can expect to have an HPV infection at some point in their lives.
Two vaccines have been developed - Gardasil and Cervarix - which have been shown to be very effective against the strains most commonly linked with cervical cancer.
In June, government advisors recommended girls aged between 12 and 13 in the UK should be vaccinated against the HPV.
It has also been suggested that HPV testing should play a part in cervical screening.
The disease kills 1,120 women in the UK every year.
In a survey done in 2002, 0.9% of women listed HPV as a cause of cervical cancer without prompting.
But researchers had hoped intense media coverage on the potential for a preventive vaccine would have raised awareness among the general public.
The latest survey done at the beginning of 2007 showed a three-fold increase in the number of women who were able to list HPV as a cause of the disease - but the figure is still "extraordinarily low" they concluded.
There had been an increase since 2002 in the proportion of respondents who mentioned virus or infection when asked for the causes of cervical cancer.
However, understanding that the virus was sexually transmitted had not improved.
Study author Laura Marlow, research assistant at University College London said they expected a bigger increase in awareness given the wealth of media coverage in the past few years.
"If people don't know about it, they can't give fully informed consent to vaccination."
She added: "The media hasn't had much effect as yet but it's all just been talk.
"Once it's actually happening, the public will be more aware of what's going on."
She added that people with higher levels of education had heard of HPV in the study suggesting there was awareness among some sections of the population.
Jenni MacDougall, Cancer Research UK's health information manager, said it was essential that public knowledge of HPV kept pace with developments such as new vaccines.
"HPV causes most cases of cervical cancer, yet this research shows few women in the UK realise this.
"The UK's cervical screening programme saves the lives of thousands of women each year. Cancer Research UK's Screening Matters campaign encourages people to go for screening when invited, and to encourage friends and family to do the same."